Guardian Posts

“The Cut Out Girl” by Bart van Es

…her memories are not as clear as I have made them. She remembers scraps — the landings, the sirens, the crouching down in the cellar, the girls in their dresss of parachute cloth, the dead bodies of soldiers in the streets of Ede–but some of the rest I must patch together from other sources, such as history books and diaries, and the witness accounts that I will get from other people whom I have yet to meet.

Memory is selective and not always reliable. So many facts are irretrievably lost. 

Award-winning biography The Cut Out Girl by Bart van Es is about Hesseline de Jong, Lien for short. Lien is a Jew. One of the few Jewish children taken into safekeeping by non-Jewish families and kept hidden from the Nazis and the Dutch police force that were hunting Jews to pack them off to the concentration camps. Bart van Es is a professor of literature at Oxford University and his earlier publications were about Shakespeare and Spenser. Yet, he chose to write about his father’s foster sister, a Jew, looked after by his grandparents during the second world war.

Bart van Es could not understand why Lien had not been invited to his grandmother’s funeral. His grandmother died when Bart was twenty three years old. He was old enough to recall Lien being a part of the family but inexplicably all ties had been severed with her a few years before his grandmother’s death. Bart van Es’s family is based in the UK. They moved to Oxford when Bart was three years old. He became a professor of English Literature at Oxford University but he knew how to speak Dutch. Curious about this severance of ties he chose to begin an investigation on what happened to his father’s foster sister. It was then he realised that his mother had remained in touch with Lien and was able to help him.

The story that is told is astounding. It is probably like many other such stories. Yet the manner in which it is shared with the readers. The mix of oral history testimonies, plenty of archival research and detective work of visiting cities and towns that Lien recalled being taken to as a child and hidden away. The Nazi occupation of the Netherlands was swift and brutal. Astoundingly the extermination of the Jews that was carried out in a methodical manner at the behest of the Nazis was implemented by the Dutch police force and a semi-commercial agency that had been set up specifically to hunt Jews. Horrifically approximately 80% of the Jews living in the country at the time were caught and killed, many sent off to concentration camps. The “success rate” was attributed to the reward given to every person who brought in a Jew. It was approximately seven guilders for every Jew turned in to the authorities. Lien’s own parents were caught two months after they had sent their daughter away to safety. Within a month of their arrest, Lien’s mother and maternal grandmother were killed at Auschwitz while her father died a few months later. Lien, fortunately, became one of the 4,000 Jewish children who had been whisked away to safety. Whatever the immediate circumstance may have been a large band of common people were willing to risk their lives and safeguard these young lives. Some of the extraordinary lengths that the Dutch went to hide Jews are spelled out in the book, including the tunnels dug out under houses that seemingly looked like air passages built ostensibly to ventilate. This was a cover for any unexpected police raids that may occur and they did with great regularity. But if investigated closely the tunnel would lead deeper into the soil where an entire room had been carved out for a family to hide. There were many other kinds of intricate networks created between the Dutch to protect the Jews.

Lien was merely eight years old when her parents handed her over for safekeeping. At first Lien was traumatised and wept bitterly. Her ninth birthday was spent with her foster parents. But within eight months when she had to escape the police raids and was moved from home to home, city to city, it began to become a blur. She was vulnerable. In one of the foster homes she was repeatedly raped by foster father’s brother. Lien was twelve. Possibly the only reason why Bart van Es is able to put together a compellingly told elegant narrative is precisely because Lien maintained a scrap book and retained a few other mementos from the past. Also interviewing her over many days and checking up facts at various museums and archives, speaking to people in the neighbourhoods she recalled staying, the author is able to put together a very elegant but a very disturbing witnessing.

At the best of times, writing about war and its impact on people is a painful exercise. But it is aggravated many times over if it is a story such as this also affects the author and his family. It is impossible to gauge whether it is a biography of Lien or is it a memoir of Bart van Es curious about his grandparents who were saviours to a little girl and would like to know more about the past. The Cut Out Girl comes across as an act of creation of two individuals who began writing the book as complete strangers and a little careful of each other but by the closing pages are thickest of friends. So much so that as Bart is leaving Lien’s apartment to catch his flight home, she chooses to introduce him to her Buddhist circle as her “nephew”.

The Cut Out Girl may come across as an astounding biography that will be talked about for years to come at the incredible luck of a little girl surviving against so many odds. It also marks the arrival of a new style of writing biographies befitting the information age — not the classic style of a literary biography mapping every moment in the protagonist’s life but focussing on significant events in their life. Telling it more in the form of a documentary with plenty of detail but in prose. (It would be short work converting this book into a documentary. The script more or less exists in these pages.) But what truly stands out in this narrative is that during the second world war there were a bunch of individuals who worked relentlessly to save lives, risking their own in the process, but were determined to do so. With The Cut Out Girl what stands out starkly is that even in the most horrifically depressing times of xenophobic violence, intolerance and bigotry, there is hope. It is not absolute bleakness though it may feel so.

The Cut Out Girl won the Costa Book of the Year award in January 2019. Both Bart van Es and Lien were on stage to receive the award. According to the Guardian: ‘Without family you don’t have a story. Now I have a story,’ said Lien de Jong, the 85-year-old woman whose harrowing story is at the heart of Bart van Es’s The Cut Out Girl.  ‘Bart has reopened the channels of family,’ she said during the Costa Book of the Year award ceremony. Van Es and Lien de Jong embraced on stage in front of a packed room after he was announced as winner at the awards.

Read The Cut Out Girl.

5 Feb 2019 

Cathy Rentzenbrink

Reading Cathy Rentzenbrink’s memoir The Last Act of Love and the companion to it A Manual for Heartache is a gut wrenching experience. The Last Act of Love was shortlisted for the Wellcome Prize 2016   for its an account of how Cathy Rentzenbrink’s younger brother Matt had a head injury and was for eight long years in a coma. The medical term for it is PVS or “permanent vegetative state” or as their mother says of Matt “living corpse”. Matt was a teenager in his prime when he met with an accident that left him in this horrific state. The Last Act of Love is a compassionate account of a sister trying to understand what her brother must be going through if he can feel anything. More importantly it is an account of how much of themselves caregivers have to give to ensure that a patient is cared for well.

Caregiving can be a thankless task since it is repititive with no breaks whatsoever. After a while the sympathetic circle of friends and relatives return to their lives but the immediate family of the patient is responsible for the daily courageous and relentless task of caregiving. At times it can become exceedingly lonely, stressful and mentally debilitating. For Cathy Rentzenbrick her escape mechanism was reading.

Reading was still my friend, though. I read continuously and compulsively, drowning out sounds of my own thoughts with the noise of other people’s stories. I no longer turned out the light before going to sleep — I had to read until the moment my eyes closed. There could be no gap for the demons to jump into. 

Most caregivers are caught in a cycle of maintaining systems that they forget to take care of themselves or share experiences about the roles they inhabit. These involve a bunch of questions about the quality of life the patient has to how effective are advancements in medical technology.

The Last Act of Love written  many years after her brother passed away takes its title from a phrase the author’s mother used in her sworn affidavit to the court seeking legal permission to discontinue nutrition and hydration given how poorly Matt was with a chest infection and recurring epileptic fits.

I have known for some time that there is nothing I can do for Matthew to enrich his life in any way. He needs to die. We had hoped it would happen with an infection and without the need to approach the court. But the sad irony is that his poor body, unable to do anything else, seems capable of fighting infection. So we are asking the court’s permission to cease nutrition and hydration so that Matthew can be released from his hopeless state. It is our last act of love for him. 

Writing The Last Act of Love may have been thereapeutic for Cathy Rentzenbrick but it certainly provides a much needed account of hope and a way of managing caregiving at home, many times the dilemma it presents. Sharing of stories is a relief for many in a similar situation but few have time to do so. Reading an account is possible.

Within months of the successful publishing of The Last Act of Love, Cathy Rentzenbrick wrote A Manual for Heartache which can be viewed as a sequel to her memoir but works very well as a manual for managing grief and loss. It is full of wisdom and gently with big dollops of kindness shares wisdom garnered over the years of caregiving for Matt.

 

Here are some invaluable excerpts from the book

On grief

What I now wish someone had told me is this: life will never be the same again. The old one is gone and you can’t have it back. What you might at some point be able to encourage yourself to do, and time will be an ally in this, is work out how to adjust to your new world. You can patch up your raggedy heart and start thinking and feeling your way towards how you want to live. That’s what I wish someone had told me and that’s what I want to tell you. I think I’m finally doing it.

On etiquette of bad news

It seems ridiculous that in the face of someone else’s misfortune we spend time worrying about our own behavious, but it’s only human and is particularly true when it comes to death and grief. I’m sure it was easier in Victorian times when there were prescribed rules, when society and the Church provided a framework. There was guidance on what to wear, how to communicate with people, how much time should elapse before everyone rejoined the business of life. Visible signs such as black crepe and mourning brooches made of jet acted as clues to the rest of the world. Like a version of the “Baby on Board” sign stuck in the back windscreen of a car, the blackness served as a warning that an individual needed to be treated kindly. All cultures have rituals around death and mourning but, in our increasingly secular society, it’s easy find ourselves unsure of what to do. 

….

I have come to see there is a beauty in simply being present for someone who is struggling wiht a heavy burden. The best thing you can offer is unlimited kindness. People to whom the worst has happened can be out-of-control sad and unable to obey the normal rules of life. It mught be all they can do to hold on. If they are mean or cruel or temporarily incapable of good manners, we need to suspend our expectations around them and give them space and compassion as they splinter and behave badly and say the wrong thing. If they are behaving perfectly and holding themselves together, then that’s OK, too. 

Reading both the books together is highly recommended. Share, share, share these books.

Update ( 5 Sept 2017)

The Guardian Longreads published a fascinating account of “How science found a way to help coma patients communicate“. It is worth reading!

Cathy Rentzenbrick The Last Act of Love Picador, an imprint of Pan Macmillan, London, 2015. Pb. pp.248 Rs 450

Cathy Rentzenbrick A Manual for Heartache Picador, an imprint of Pan Macmillan, London, 2017. Hb. pp. 150 Rs 499 

31 August 2017 

 

A new Zadie Smith, a new set of difficulties in reading, a new pleasure


( My review of Zadie Smith’s new novel, Swing Time, has been published in Scroll today. Here is the original url: http://scroll.in/article/824448/a-new-zadie-smith-a-new-set-of-difficulties-in-reading-a-new-pleasure . I am also c&p the text below.)

 

The baby was surrounded by love. It’s a question of what love gives you the right to do.

Zadie Smith’s latest novel Swing Time is about two young girls, Tracey and a nameless narrator, who live in council housing of 1980s London. These young girls are of mixed parentage who have been born different shades of brown as a result. They are not exactly social misfits but are not entirely accepted by their classmates as is apparent when they get invited to Lily Bingham’s tenth birthday party. The two girls are completely out of their depth as are their mothers who are clueless on how to guide the youngsters.

Was it the kind of thing where you dropped your kid off? Or was she, as the mum, expected to come into the house? The invitation said a trip to the cinema – but who’d pay for this ticket? The guest or the house? Did you have to take a gift? What kind of gift were we getting? …It was as if the party was taking in some bewildering foreign land, rather than a three-minute walk away, in a house on the other side of the park.

Swing Time is narrated in first person bringing to the story an intimacy, a close involvement between the reader and narrator, which would otherwise be missing if it was narrated in third person. This intimate relationship between narrator and reader helps particularly if Swing Time is read as a bildungsroman. The firm childhood friendship of the narrator and Tracey seems to peter away in adulthood. Yet the narrator’s flashbacks focus inevitably on the time she spent growing up in Thatcherite London with Tracey, to a large extent informing her adult life — emphasising the quality of “shared history“, an important aspect of friendships to Zadie Smith.  (Friendships are a characteristic trait of her fiction.) Swing Time zips particularly once the billionaire singer, Aimee, hires the narrator as one of her personal assistants. The storytelling pace matches the heady life of the superstar who flits through her own life juggling various roles such as of being a mother, her performances, recording music, and charitable “good work” in Africa by sponsoring schools.

Amongst the early book reviews of the novel there is a common refrain that the story fails to match the potential of a writer like Zadie Smith, deteriorating into contrived, formulaic and predictable storytelling. Trying to read Swing Time in the traditional manner is an excruciating task. The sentences are structured in such an unpredictable manner – sometimes running on in a Jamesian style for pages on end in an uninterrupted paragraph. The swift shifts in tone from meditative introspection to commentary and sharp judgement by the narrator can be disconcerting. But if you shift the classical expectations of what the book should deliver to that of a novel written by an artist AND a mother — it suddenly transforms. It is more about an artist being a successful professional while managing her time as a mother too. Here is the narrator talking about her mother who puts herself through college while her daughter is still in school, later the mother becomes a prominent politician.

Oh, it’s very nice and rational and respectable to say that a woman has every right to life, to her ambitions, to her needs, and so on – it’s what I’ve always demanded myself –but as a child, no, the truth is it’s a war of attrition, rationality doesn’t come into it, not one bit, all you want from your mother is that she once and for all admit that she is your mother and only your mother, and that her battle with the rest of life is over. She has to lay down her arms and come to you. And if she doesn’t do it, then it’s really a war, and it was a war between my mother and me. Only as an adult did I come to truly admire her – especially in the last, painful years of her life – for all that she had done to claw some space in this world for herself. When I was young her refusal to submit to me confused and wounded me, especially as I felt none of the usual reasons of refusal applied. I was her only child and she had no job – not back then – and she hardly spoke to the rest of the family. As far as I was concerned, she had nothing but time. Yet still I couldn’t get her complete submission! My earliest sense of her was of a woman plotting an escape, from me, from the very role of motherhood.

There are portraits, references and pithy observations on mothering or the relationship between mothers and children. There are the mothers of the two girls – Tracey and narrator, the grandmothers in the family compound of African schoolteacher Hawa, the mothers of the African school children, Aimee and her children and Tracey and her brood. In some senses this novel too with its overdone cultural references especially of the recent past also becomes a record of events for Zadie Smith’s children’s generation.

In June 2013 Zadie Smith along with Jane Smiley objected to the suggestion made by journalist and author Lauren Sandler that they should restrict the size of their families if they want to avoid limiting their careers. Writing in the Guardian, Zadie Smith said, “”I have two children. Dickens had 10 – I think Tolstoy did, too. Did anyone for one moment worry that those men were becoming too fatherish to be writeresque? Does the fact that Heidi Julavits, Nikita Lalwani, Nicole Krauss, Jhumpa Lahiri, Vendela Vida, Curtis Sittenfeld, Marilynne Robinson, Toni Morrison and so on and so forth (I could really go on all day with that list) have multiple children make them lesser writers?” said Smith. “Are four children a problem for the writer Michael Chabon – or just for his wife, the writer Ayelet Waldman?” Smith added that the real threat “to all women’s freedom is the issue of time, which is the same problem whether you are a writer, factory worker or nurse”. A sentiment echoed in Swing Time when she writes: “The fundamental skill of all mothers [is] the management of time”.

In the end the narrator learns to appreciate Tracey’s balancing act as a professional and a mother  — like a dance.

She was right above me, on her balcony, in a dressing gown and slippers, her hands in the air, turning, turning, her children around her, everybody dancing.

Swing Time is a mesmerising if at times a challenging read. It is the portrait of an artist AND a mother.

Zadie Smith Swing Time Hamish Hamilton, an imprint of Penguin Books, Penguin Random House, London, 2016. Pb. Pp.454 Rs. 599

Literati: Memoirs (5 October 2014)

Literati: Memoirs (5 October 2014)

Jaya Bhattacharji RoseMy monthly column in the Hindu Literary Review was published online on 4 October 2014 and in print on 5 October 2014. Here is the url  http://www.thehindu.com/books/literary-review/a-look-at-the-world-of-books-publishing-and-writers/article6471249.ece . I am also c&p the text below. 

Memoir is specifically an individual remembering their life as well as a period. It does not have a single narrative nor is it a teleological narrative as an epic is—it is episodic and a collection of personal anecdotes that the memoirist chooses to recall and share publicly. Ian Jack wrote in the Guardian ( 2003): “Writing one’s own personal history used to be called autobiography, Now, more and more, it is called memoir. The two words are often used interchangeably and the boundary between the two forms is fuzzy, but there are differences. An autobiography is usually a record of accomplishment. … The memoir’s ambition is to be interesting in itself, as a novel might be, about intimate, personal experience. It often aspires to be thought of as “literary”, and for that reason borrows many of literature’s tricks – the tricks of the novel, of fiction – because it wants to do more than record the past; it wants to re-create it. If a memoir is to succeed on those terms, on the grounds that all lives are interesting if well-enough realised, the writing has to be good.”

Some of the notable memoirs, each representative of a distinctive subject, in recent months have been Sanjaya Baru’s The Accidental Prime Minister, Damian Barr’s Maggie & Me, Joanna Rakoff’s My Salinger Year, Naseeruddin Shah’s And One Day, Chris Hadfield’s An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth, Aleksander Hemon’s The Book of My Lives; Pamela Timms’s Korma, Kheer & Kismet: Five Seasons in Delhi, Malala Yousafzai with Patrick McCormackMalala, Indian Voices of the Great War: Soldier’s Letters, 1914-18, David Omissi (editor), Remember the Time: Protecting Michael Jackson in His Final Days, by the singer’s security guards, Bill Whitfield and Javon Beard, with Tanner Colby. The popularity of this genre has had an effect on contemporary writing in that they are in the oral form of storytelling and are dependent upon personal histories. For instance, journalist Marja Mills’s The Mockingbird Next Door: Life with Harper Lee is about the “story of Mill’s friendship with the Lee sisters”, but the author’s note states it is a “work of nonfiction”. A similar book is Veena Venugopal’s brilliant and disturbing The Mother-in-Law, it consists of experiences of daughters-in-law profiling their mothers-in-law to Veena over a series of interviews.

Many novels rely upon autobiographical experiences to create a story but as Akhil Sharma points out, “I think nonfiction requires an absolute commitment to the truth. In non-fiction I need to include things to present the situation and characters in a rounded way. I don’t know if I do that in my novel. Family Life is so completely a story that many boring but very important things were left out. All fiction draws on life but that does not mean all fiction should be viewed as managed non-fiction.”

The fact is memoirs sell at a brisk pace for traditional publishers and constitutes a large chunk of self-published books. On digital platforms too— Facebook status updates, longreads and blogs— posts that are read and discussed animatedly are those written from a personal point of view. For instance Sudhanva Deshpande’s moving tributes uploaded on to his Facebook wall as he watched his father, the noted Marathi playwright, G. P. Deshpande, lie in a coma or Vandana Singh’s blog post “Some musings on diversity in SF” about travel writing and scifi.  In fact, Andrew Stauffer of Book Traces (a crowd sourced web project to find drawings, marginalia, photos and anything else in copies of 19th and early 20th century books) says “It’s certainly true that readers used the margins of their books for a kind of journaling and memoir-writing, in the quasi-private, quasi-public space of the domestic book. I don’t know if that obviates the desire for long-form memoirs. You might think about our current digital culture of commenting and liking online, and how that incremental curation of a persona is a stand-in for autobiography.”

This raises the question of how do we classify biographies such as A.N. Wilson’s splendid Queen Victoria that draws heavily upon the Queen’s personal correspondence and diaries, making her at times speak in her own words—is it a memoir as well? But as Diana Athill, legendary editor who wrote an essay in the Guardian recently about death, while reflecting upon an incident from her childhood involving her mother says, “It was a shock to come up so suddenly against the fact that what to me was history, to her was just something from the day before yesterday.” For me this is the prime objective of a memoir—making the past accessible through a personal account.

6 October 2014

Aleksander Hemon, “The Book of My Lives”

Aleksander Hemon, “The Book of My Lives”


Aleksander HemonThe situation of immigration leads to a kind of self-othering as well. Displacement results in a tenuous relationship with the past, with the self that used to exist and operate in a different place, where the qualities that constituted us were in no need of negotiation. Immigration is an ontological crisis because you are forced to negotiate the conditions of your selfhood under perpetually changing existential circumstances. The displaced person strives for narrative stability– here is my story!–by way of systematic nostalgia. p.17
 
I first came across Aleksander Hemon when I read his moving (and painful) essay, “The Aquarium”, in the New Yorker. ( http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2011/06/13/the-aquarium, 13 June 2011) It was about the loss of his second daughter, an infant, from a brain tumour. Then I read a brilliant interview by John Freeman published in How to read a Novelist: Conversations with writers ( First published in the Guardian, http://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/feb/23/aleksandar-hemon, 23 February 2013 ). In it John Freeman observes that “Hemon has been widely praised for the unexpected images [ his] style creates, but it was not, he says, the hallmark of a writer trying to bridge here and there. It was deliberate, honed, and in some cases mapped out. ‘I wanted to write with intense sensory detail, to bring a heightened state.’ He is a sentence writer who counts beats as a poet does syllables.”

Aleksander Hemon was born in Sarajevo and has lived in Chicago since 1992. The Book of My Lives is his fourth book, but first nonfiction. It follows A Question for Bruno ( 2000), Nowhere Man ( 2002), The Lazarus Project ( 2008) and Love and ObstaclesThe Book of My Lives consists of 16 essays that were originally published elsewhere, such as The New YorkerGranta, and McSweeney’s. There were revised and edited for the memoir. The essays vary from time spent in Sarajevo, being with the family, eating his grandmother’s homecooked broth, to participating in a Nazi-themed birthday party for his younger sister and disappearing off to the family cabin on the mountain called Jahorina, twenty miles from Sarajevo, for weeks on end to read in solitude and peace. On one such visit, the American Cultural Centre called him to say he had been invited to America for a month. While he was there, the war broke out in Sarajevo and he could not return for many years. The second half of the book consists of essays documenting/coming to grips with the new life/experiences — of being an immigrant in America. 

The funny thing is that the need for collective self-legtimization fits snugly into the neoliberal fantasy of multiculturalism, which is nothing if not a dream of a lot of others living together, everybody happy to tolerate and learn. Differences are thus essentially required for the sense of belonging: as long as we know who we are and who we are not, we are as good as they are. In the multicultural world there are a lot of them, which out not to be a problem as long as they stay within their cultural confines, loyal to their roots. There is no hierarchy of cultures, except as measured by the level of tolerance, which, incidentally, keeps Western democracies high above everyone else. ….p.16
 

I read this book while travelling through Kashmir. In fact it took me a day to read, completely engrossed in it. It was a little surreal reading the essays while on holiday in Kashmir, especially those describing the conflict in Sarajevo, since the presence of the security forces, the freewheeling conversations with the locals about recovering from many years of conflict, or the tedious security checks at the airport are constant reminders of how fragile any society affected by conflict is. It is a memoir I would recommend strongly. A must.

Here are some links related to Aleksander Hemon that are worth exploring: Gary Shteyngart in conversation with Hemon http://chicagohumanities.org/events/2014/winter/little-failure-gary-shteyngart-aleksandar-hemon

Aleksander Hemon interviews Teju Cole, Bomb http://bombmagazine.org/article/10023/teju-cole

An interview in the Salon http://www.salon.com/2013/03/23/aleksandar_hemon_i_cannot_stand_that_whole_game_of_confession_i_have_nothing_to_confess_and_i_do_not_ask_for_redemption/

Q&A in the NYT http://artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/03/20/waiting-for-catastrophes-aleksandar-hemon-talks-about-the-book-of-my-lives/?_php=true&_type=blogs&_r=0

Review in The Economist http://www.economist.com/news/books-and-arts/21575736-essays-exile-writing-survive

Aleksander Hemon The Book of My Lives Picador, Oxford, 2013. Pb. pp. 250 Rs 450 
11 Sept 2014 

Esther Freud “Mr Mac and Me”

Esther Freud “Mr Mac and Me”

Mr Mac and MeMac is working on a bright purple grape hyacinth. He has it laid out on a sheet of paper and is examining its tiny solid head. ‘No.’ he mutters to himself, ‘no.’

I’ve let myself in, but now I’m not sure whether to disturb him.

‘Hello.’ He looks up and catches me at the door, and he tells me that never has he spent a morning with a flower and known less about it when he was through. ‘Look,’ he lays it out. And together we peer at the dense purple blocks of it, solid as wax above its stalk of blazing green. 

(p.195, Mr Mac and Me)

Thomas Magg, the crippled twelve-year-old son of the Blue Anchor owner, lives on the coast of Suffolk. A little before First World War breaks, Tom befriends a new visitor to their village, who it turns out is the renowned architect, Charles Rennie Macintosh. The two develop a  cordial relationship, primarily focused upon their common love for painting. Thomas or Tom as he is often referred enjoys doodling ships and boats in the margins of his notebooks, much to the exasperation of his school teacher. Whereas Mr Macintosh or Mr Mac as Tom calls him exquisitely paints water colours of the local wild flowers. ( In fact the cover of Esther Freud’s novel uses a detail from a beautiful 1915 water colour and pencil drawing Charles Macintosh made of Fritillaria.) Soon the two men “bond” over their love for painting and are able to share the silence of working together in peace. ( “There’s a thick, warm silence as we work. I’ve sense that silence, when I used to watch them, but now that I’m inside it, it’s as solid as a coat.” ) At times, Mrs Margaret Macdonald, an accomplished painter herself specialising in the technique of Gosse, joins her husband in Suffolk. ( Her most famous Gesso work was a set of panels, larger than doors, commissioned by a private collector and called The Seven Princesses. ) They are from Glasgow where along with Margaret’s sister, Frances and her husband, Herbert MacNair, they were known as The Four. Mr Mac was also responsible for designing the new Glasgow School of Art, commissioned in 1897 by the School Director, Francis Newberry. (His descriptions of the project are a pleasure to read in the crm-pansynovel.) With the Great War breaking life in Suffolk is also affected. Soldiers come and stay, refugees arrive, and locals living near to the sea move to safer places  inland and with the turmoil suspicion falls upon Mr Mac. The locals, goaded by Mr Gory, a newcomer himself, rapidly come to believe that Mr Mac is a spy since he moves around with his binoculars or spyglass observing the coastline. Before the war is over, Mr Mac is arrested and Thomas leaves Suffolk to travel the world.

Mr Mac and Me is a stunningly beautiful novel. All fiction is ultimately a labour of love, butMargaret Macintosh, Seven Princesses this is infused with love and beauty on every page. Every description is magnificent such as of the child observing Mr Mac paint — “I smile because he’s painted the river as if it is his own”. The descriptions of the wild flowers, even of the sweet william blooms on Tom’s mother’s table in the pub add a dash of colour, it is as if you can almost get the gentle and sweet fragrance of the wild flowers. While reading I kept wondering if some of these observations about watching a painter at work stemmed from Esther Freud’s own experience of seeing her father Lucien Freud at work. An answer was to be had in an interview she gave to the Guardian. She says “It’s funny, I didn’t even think about that until my publisher pointed out that the book describes how an artist works through the eyes of a child. And that was exactly my experience with my father; I slowly came to understand the artistic process through watching him paint. I’d have these little realisations like: oh, it’s going to take years! Or, as it says about Mackintosh in the book, that he was showing the insides of something – he hadn’t just abandoned it halfway through. I enjoyed trying to follow his thought process.”  ( 31 august 2014, http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/aug/31/esther-freud-author-interview-mr-mac-and-me  )

Sadly the buildings of Glasgow School of Art that Charles Rennie Macintosh designed were severely damaged in a fire on 23 May 2014. In fact, Esther Freud “heard the news on the last day of checking the proofs. The timing did feel extraordinary. I felt so connected to him and so aware that he had had enough bad luck already.”

Mr Mac and Me is a pleasure to read. It has the knack of drawing  you in to the early twentieth century world of Suffolk without seeming like historical fiction, yet it leaves a warm glow of discovering a new world, creating a new space in one’s mind and introducing the reader to a significant designer of the post-Impressionist and Art Nouveau movement in Great Britain.  There is a lovely article published on 16 August 2014 in the Guardian describing how Esther Freud came to write this novel: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/aug/16/esther-freud-houses-ghosts-inspired-new-book .

Please buy it! You won’t be sorry. This is a book for keeps.

Esther Freud Mr Mac and Me Bloomsbury India, 2014. Pb. pp. 300 Rs. 499

“Price Fighters” ( The Hindu, 31 Aug 2014)

“Price Fighters” ( The Hindu, 31 Aug 2014)

( The Hindu asked me to write a short piece about the ongoing price war between Amazon and Hachette. It was published on 31 August 2014. Here is the link: http://www.thehindu.com/todays-paper/tp-features/tp-sundaymagazine/price-fighters/article6365601.ece . I am c&p a longer version of the article published. ) 

Cartoon accompanying the Hindu article On August 10, 2014, Authors United wrote an open letter decrying Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ pressure tactics on Hachette to lower ebook prices. The letter — written by thriller writer, Douglas Preston and placed as a two-page ad, costing $ 104,000, and signed by well-known names such as James Patterson, Stephen King, David Baldacci, Kamila Shamsie, Philip Pullman, Donna Tartt, Ann Patchett, Malcolm Gladwell, Paul Auster and Barbara Kingsolver —states, “As writers — most of us not published by Hachette — we feel strongly that no bookseller should block the sale of books or otherwise prevent or discourage customers from ordering or receiving the books they want. It is not right for Amazon to single out a group of authors, who are not involved in the dispute, for selective retaliation.” The writers printed Bezos’ e-mail id and asked authors to write to him directly.

This letter came after months of a public spat between publisher Hachette and online retailer Amazon. No one is privy to the details but it is widely speculated that the fight is about the pricing of books, especially e-books. Authors began to feel the effect of these business negotiations once Amazon stopped processing sales of their books or became extremely slow in fulfilling orders. It even removed an option to pre-order  The Silkworm , by J.K. Rowling writing as Robert Galbraith, prompting the author to respond on Twitter where she encouraged her three million followers to order  The Silkworm from high street stores and independent booksellers. Ironical given that Amazon’s motto is customer satisfaction.

 Amazon defended its actions through a letter released on its website, Readers United (http://www.readersunited.com/), and circulated it to self-published authors using their Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) platform. In it, the company said that for a “healthy reading culture, we have to work hard to be sure books actually are competitive against these other media types, and a big part of that is working hard to make books less expensive.” Amazon is asking for all e-books to be priced at $9.99 or less. Misquoting George Orwell’s ironic comment on the popularity of new format of paperbacks in the 1930s, Amazon wrote that even Orwell had suggested collusion among publishers. It released the e-mail id of Hachette CEO, Michael Pietsch, asking readers to write to him directly to make books affordable since it is good for book culture.

 Pietsch replied to all those who wrote to him stating clearly, “Hachette sets prices for our books entirely on our own, not in collusion with anyone… More than 80 per cent of the e-books we publish are priced at $9.99 or lower. Those few priced higher — most at $11.99 and $12.99 — are less than half the price of their print versions. Those higher priced e-books will have lower prices soon, when the paperback version is published. … Unlike retailers, publishers invest heavily in individual books, often for years, before we see any revenue. We invest in advances against royalties, editing, design, production, marketing, warehousing, shipping, piracy protection, and more. We recoup these costs from sales of all the versions of the book that we publish — hardcover, paperback, large print, audio, and e-book. While e-books do not have the $2-$3 costs of manufacturing, warehousing, and shipping that print books have, their selling price carries a share of all our investments in the book.”

Amazon’s shareholders are getting tetchy with the massive losses the company has posted once again. For the current quarter, Amazon forecast that the losses would only grow. It expects a healthy rise in revenue but an operating loss of as much as $810 million, compared with a loss of $25 million in the third quarter of 2013. Losses increased as the firm spent heavily in a bid to expand its business with its first smartphone, the Fire Phone. Bob Kohn has pointed out the monopsony power of Amazon, which has a current market share of 65% of all online book units, digital and print, is not just theoretical; it’s real and formidable. When a company has dominant market power and sells goods for below marginal cost, it is engaging in predatory pricing, a violation of federal antitrust laws.”  There have been articles in USA for the government to enforce the Robinson-Patman Act of 1936, the law prohibits a retailer from wielding its mere size to bully suppliers for discounts. But as Colbert’s experiment of promoting debut author Edan Lepucki’s novel California showed that if readers want, they can procure a book from anywhere. His discussion about it, stemming from his anger for Amazon’s monopolistic practices, propelled California to becoming an NYT bestseller.

In India, commercially-successful author Ashwin Sanghi, drawing parallels between the music industry of 2002 and publishing of today, says, “Books are at an inflection point in 2014; a bit like music was in 2002. Music producers were accustomed to selling CDs whereas Apple wanted to sell singles at 99 cents. The face-off between Amazon and publishers/authors is similar. Publishers wish to charge prices that the industry is accustomed to while Amazon wishes to charge prices that customers will like, thus inducing more customers to buy on Amazon. I think the time has come for Jeff Bezos to sit across the table with publishers. There is no alternative.”

Another author, Rahul Saini writes “I have never supported the idea of monopoly and that is what Amazon is clearly trying to do here. Looking at the argument Amazon is making, it does make sense — buyers are always driven by low prices and heavy discounts (the Indian book market is a perfect example) but I firmly believe that the retailer does not own any right to dictate the pricing of a book. It has to be a mutual consent between the author and the publisher.”

 Popular author Ravinder Singh has his own take. “A publisher has the right to decide the cost of its books (in any format).  If the retailer really wants to bring down the price of the book, he can discount on his margins and should be free to do so. To decide the price tag of a book is a publisher’s (and not retailer’s) prerogative. Having said that, knowingly delaying shipment of titles of a particular publisher (and their authors’) just because it is not accepting the demand, leaves a bad taste in everyone’s mouth — readers, authors and publishers. Amazon may be right about the price-demand elasticity of the e-book and in saying that it can certainly bring more readership and thereby more money (offsetting the drop in price). But Hachette has all the right to decline it, even if it means letting go off money. As far as authors are concerned, they would not like to see one particular entity in the entire chain (that has accumulated huge powers), be it a publisher or a retailer, to decide their fate. They want to reach out to as many readers as possible, on time and make the royalties that they deserve.”

 Writing in the Guardian, Kamila Shamsie says, “All writers should be deeply concerned by the strong-arm tactics Amazon is using in its contractual dispute with Hachette — similar to tactics used in 2008 with Bloomsbury titles.  Writers want their books to reach readers; and we want to be able to earn a living from our work. It’s a great irony that the world’s largest bookseller is prepared to trample over both those wants in order to gain a business advantage even while claiming to stand up for readers and writers.

Others disagree. Major names in self-publishing including Barry Eisler and Hugh Howey petitioned Hachette asking the publisher to “work on a resolution that keeps e-book prices reasonable and pays authors a fair wage”. This has gathered over 7,600 signatures.

 Publishing is not like selling biscuits or furniture. It isn’t a question of taste and preference but an exercise in social philosophy. Amazon is primarily a tech-company whose dominance in the book industry is unprecedented. There may be some similarities with what happened in the music industry 10 years ago but publishing thrives on editorial tastes, which requires human intervention, not a series of algorithms promoting and recommending books. The book industry relies upon editors who know the business of “discovering” authors and converting them into household names. This public outrage against the ongoing battle between Amazon and Hachette proves that books are important to the cultural dimension of society.

1 September 2014