Paris Posts

Vera Michalski-Hoffman’s keynote address at Jaipur Bookmark, 25 Jan 2019

The Jaipur Bookmark is a business conclave held during the Jaipur Literature Festival. In fact it begins a day before the litfest is inuagurated. It is a fantastic space for publishing professionals to congregate from around the world and discuss new trends and share ideas and experiences. On the third day of the conclave, Friday 25 Jan 2019, I moderated a session on “Indies vs Giants”. The scope of the discussion was: “Independent publishers with lower overheads are finding their niche position in the publishing industry around the world, even as publishing giants are consolidating their positions. This session talks about creative risk taking and the tools brave, new publishers adopt.” The panellists were publishers Vera Michalski-Hoffman (Libella group), Karthika VK ( Westland/Amazon), Jeremy Trevathan (Macmillan), and Anna Solding (Midnight Sun Publishing). Vera Michalski-Hoffman also delivered the keynote address and with her kind permission it is reproduced here.

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L-R: Anna Solding, Jaya Bhattacharji Rose, Vera Michalski-Hoffman, Jeremy Trevathan, Karthika VK

Born in Basel, Switzerland, in a family with Swiss, Russian and Austrian roots, Vera Michalski-Hoffmann spent her childhood in France, studied in Spain and has a degree in Political Science from the Graduate institute of International Studies in Geneva. She established a foundation named after her late husband, The Jan Michalski Foundation for Literature and Writing to actively support literary activities in different countries. She is now the publisher of the Libella group that comprises the following imprints: In France: Buchet/Chastel, Phébus, Le temps apprivoisé, les Cahiers dessinés, Libretto. In Switzerland: Noir sur Blanc, with a new line called Notabilia, Editions Favre. And in Poland: Oficyna Literacka Noir sur Blanc. She also acquired The Polish Bookshop in Paris. 

Vera Michalski’s tremendous work in supporting literature with the establishment of Libella group and it’s acquisitions of fine independent publishing firms have ultimately benefitted the fine stable of authors as is noticeable with World Editions and it’s recent expansion plans.  “The group is unique in its total financial independence and the diversity of its editorial production: French and foreign literature, travel stories, essays, documents, music, ecology, illustrated books and creative hobbies. Priority is given to quality, especially to the quality of writing.” 

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I thought that I would focus my speech on the specificities of Libella, being neither a giant nor obviously an Indie so that this case study of an untypical small publishing house evolving into a publishing group publishing in 3 different languages could form a sort of starting point for our discussion.

Let me tell you the story of how this independent group came into existence by a succession of launching new imprints and acquiring existing ones and what fields it covers now, naturally mentioning the Indian or Jaipur connection when appropriate. Forgive me for not respecting a strict chronology for it is a complicated story unfolding in different territories.

The whole story started in 1987 in Switzerland when my husband and I opened les éditions Noir sur Blanc, a niche publisher aiming at bringing mostly Polish and Russian authors to the  French-speaking market (France, Belgium, Quebec, Switzerland) and covering both fiction and non-fiction. This was before the fall of the Berlin Wall so not that obvious. Later we covered other fields, like narrative history and published quite a few Jaipur regulars such as William Dalrymple, Giles Milton, or Anthony Sattin. We now bring out as well illustrated books mainly about drawing and photography. A total of over 400 titles.

We soon decided that it was important to publish in Polish as well and opened a Polish branch in 1989 where we started by introducing famous international authors into Poland that were then still unpublished. Charles Bukowski, Henry Miller, Paul Auster, to name just a few. We published Umberto Eco’s novels and brought out detective stories with a travel angle. The likes of Donna Leon, Manuel Vázquez Montalbán, and Andrea Camilleri were unknown then. We have published so far well over 500 books in Polish.

Still in Poland but later, in 2002, Wydawnictwo Literackie, one of the  most literary publishing houses founded in 1953  under communist rule and still state owned, came up for sale in the frame of privatization. We stepped in. That magnificent company’s list and backlist never cease to amaze me. Let’s mention just a few names: Margaret Atwood, Jorge Luis Borges, Claudio Magris, Alice Munro, and Orhan Pamuk. Not to mention the best of Polish literature with names such as Olga Tokarczuk, recent winner of the Man booker International,Witold Gombrowicz, or Szcepan Twardoch.

In the year 2000, in Paris, we had acquired Buchet/Chastel, a literary publisher established in 1929, a well-regarded publisher of fiction. This allowed us to touch French literature which we were very keen to do, alongside some significant international authors. Buchet had been the publisher of Malcolm Lowry, Lawrence Durrell, or Henry Miller to mention just a few names. However, in 2000, Buchet /Chastel was well past its glory. People called it “La belle endormie” in reference to the famous tale Sleeping Beauty by Charles Perrault, but remembered the iconic bright orange covers.

It made for a real challenge to bring it back to the forefront of literary life. We hired editors for the different lines we wanted to exist: French literature, world literature, non-fiction. We then took a good look at the impressive backlist and decided what directions we wanted to keep. The founder of Buchet /Chastel, Edmond Buchet was a keen musician and a rather good pianist. He had made friends with a number of famous musicians among them Yehudi Menuhin. He published quite a few books about music. We decided to maintain that line. We opened new fields and started an environmental series. France was then not very receptive to these topics, the field being covered mostly by very politicized books on the verge of pamphlets, on marginal topics. Nobody was focusing on important issues and providing objective material, food for thought so to speak, which we aimed at doing. We decided as well to keep the famous orange covers that people remembered modernizing them by using a different cover paper and different typo. Because we all know that we should not throw out the baby with the bath water! Sometimes there needs to be a sort of continuity. Over the years, we published quite a few Indian writers, in fiction and non-fiction, among them our biggest success was Tarun Tejpal, (The Alchemy of Desire). Our list boasts as well with Aravind Adiga (The White Tiger), Suketu Mehta, Rana Dasgupta, Gurcharan Das, Pankaj Mishra etc.

Shortly before 2000, we had acquired les éditions Phébus, a house founded in 1978, with an excellent reputation especially in foreign literature and stories of great explorers, or rediscovered classics, as Alexandre Dumas’s Le Chevalier de Saint Hermine. Phébus had created a paperback imprint a few years before under the name Libretto, now a very important part of the Libella group.

In 2003 we opened a brand new field, drawing, and started publishing big format soft cover beige albums typeset in a classical elegant way and printed on quality paper under the name Les Cahiers dessinés. The aim was to bring back drawing to its rightful place as one of the important disciplines of art alongside painting or sculpture. We now have more than 100 titles in our backlist and some books sold quite well, like Alberto Giacometti’s Paris Without End.

Photography is represented in the Libella group by 2 imprints: Photosynthèses which was started from scratch in 2013 in Arles, in the south of France, (the first book published in 2014 was Lou Reed’s Rhymes). Every book is considered unique and different formats co-exist in the list. They are printed with the utmost care. Libella acquired editions Robert Delpire, founded in 1951, when the founder chose to retire a few years ago. We are gradually opening the list to new authors while remaining careful not to alter the excellent image the house has enjoyed in the past with famous authors such as Henri Cartier-Bresson, Josef Koudelka, or Robert Franck. Under these new circumstances, we reacted quickly when the gallery adjoining the Delpire office became available. We relabeled it FOLIA, a name that seemed to reconcile book and image, and produce now 5 exhibitions a year showing both our authors’ work and others whose work fits into the concept. The aim is to show photography with a literary angle.

Another line in Libella needs to be mentioned, practical books under the imprint Le Temps apprivoisé, a part of Buchet Chastel  when we acquired it. We decided to keep it in spite of a relative distance to the main part of the catalogue and a sector fragilized by the competition with internet sites and cheap books produced by the giants able to have huge print runs.

One recent development is very important to me. In 2016, World Editions joined Libella and we now publish in English a small list of 8 books a year under the motto Voices from around the globe. The office is in Amsterdam. The idea is to help interesting books, often from peripheral languages, to get access to translations and the world market in an age where translations, expensive as they are, tend to stick to mainstream authors and main languages leaving some authors alone.

In between, in 1991, we had intervened in order to prevent the closing of the Polish Bookstore established in Paris since 1833.This very well located shop, then selling mostly books in Polish or translated from Polish. It is now a very active general bookstore. It welcomes any kind of literary event in a part of Paris where books have sadly given way to clothes in spite of the fact that it was home to most publishers until recent years saw a consolidation of the industry bringing about the need for bigger office space that the old district of St. Germain des Prés could not offer. This happened recently as a result of the consolidation in the publishing industry, most small literary publishers had to leave the area to move in with their respective groups often located outside the historical centre of town. The bookstore and the gallery became an important part of our publicity and ensure an improved visibility in Paris.

I believe I gave you the general picture of Libella, a confederation of small almost niche mostly literary publishers, publishing in 3 languages out of offices in Lausanne, Paris, Arles, Warsaw, Krakow, Amsterdam and New York.

In spite of our relatively small size, we have a certain complexity, publish over 300 books a year. So where do we stand? Let our discussion clarify that point.

12 Feb 2019

Marius Gabriel’s “The Designer”

Marius Grabriel’s The Designer is a novel about the fashion designer, Christian Dior, in Paris in 1944. At this time Dior was still with the fashion house of Lucien Lelong, designing dresses for the wives of Nazi officers and French collaborators. His sister Catherine was a member of the French Resistance, captured by the Gestapo, and sent to the Ravensbrück concentration camp. She was released in May 1945. The Designer is narrated by a twenty-six-year-old American journalist, Oona or “Copper” as she is universally known. She is stepping out of a short lived, messy marriage to an American and decides to set base in Paris as a fashion journalist. It helps that she is part of the inner circle of Dior.  It is about Paris, the war and the nascent fashion industry that blossomed into the multi-million dollar empire after the war.

The Designer is a pacy read for the first half of the book.  This was probably written to coincide with the 70th year celebrations of the Dior company. It is interesting how Marius Gabriel selects elements of historical truth for his literary backdrop, otherwise the story could be like that of any other commercial fiction novel. Once Marius Gabriel has made the literary setting with Christian Dior and his circle of friends including Suzy Solidor, usually to be found at the then fashionable La Vie Parisienne, he abandons all pretence of writing historical fiction. Instead the plot zips along purely on the basis of conversations which after a while become tiresome. Also his character, Copper, admirable as she may be comes across as too modern a woman fitting better in the twenty-first century than during the 1940s! Quite unlike Georgette Heyer who wrote with finesse a brand of historical fiction that today would be recognised as commercial fiction, Marius Gabriel’s story begins to jar. Having said that he does introduce concepts like Le Petit Théâtre Dior which ostensibly was conceptualised to create 2′ high dolls to showcase Dior’s creations, to avoid splurging on silk which was hard to come by in the war years. Obviously it is a trademark style that has survived within the firm judging by the gorgeous clips illustrating how perfectly these miniature mannequins are made. Be that as it may Marius Gabriel is considered to be a highly successful author who has also written romance novels under the nom de plume Madeleine Ker.

The Designer is a part of Westland ( an Amazon company) attempts to introduce in India original fiction published by Amazon abroad at reasonable prices.

Marius Gabriel The Designer Lake Union Publishing, Seattle. Pb. pp. 330 Rs. 399 

“The Bicycle Spy” & “Brave Like My Brother”

Of late there has been an increase in the amount of historical fiction set during the second world war by contemporary writers. These are two wonderful examples. The Bicycle Spy introduces young readers to the Resistance and German occupation of France. It is a story told from the perspective of a young boy who discovers his classmate is a Jew from Paris and needs protection. With the help of his parents he sets out on his mission. Likewise Brave Like My Brother is about a young American soldier who is recruited and within three days packed off to England and later, France. The story is told via letters he exchanges with his younger brother. As the writer says he did take some creative license to tell it but it’s embedded in facts such as Eisenhower’s visit to the Allied troops in Europe and the use of inflatable armoured vehicles to be used as decoy before D-day.

Both the books, published by Scholastic, are immensely readable and a great way to introduce children to different aspects of the war. Now for similar yalit fiction about conflict situations in other geographies.

17 February 2017 

Land Of Love And Ruins by Oddny Eir

I reviewed Oddny Eir’s magnificent book Land of Love and Ruins for The Mint. )

Land Of Love And Ruins is the first novel of Icelandic writer Oddný Eir to be translated into English. This book had won the writer and environmental activist the 2014 European Union Prize for Literature and the 2012 Icelandic Women’s Literature Prize. Written in the aftermath of the Icelandic banking crisis, Land Of Love And Ruins takes on the form of a diary, allowing the writer the freedom to flit back and forth on a subject and digress into personal reflections, recalling a conversation of the day or meditating on different philosophical points. It is a wonderful way for the reader to sink into an autobiographical novel that reveals an anxiety about the plundering of nature in the name of development.

In her diary accounts, the nameless woman narrator also reflects upon her complicated relationship with her archaeologist brother and ornithologist boyfriend, whom she refers to by their nicknames, Owlie and Birdie.

Her diary meanders through the few months she spends working while travelling within her country, Iceland, and abroad. While in Iceland, she travels to well-known tourist spots such as the lava park, Reykjavik; Hveragerði or the hot springs park; Holsfjoll, where there have been farms since mid-15th century; Snartarstaðir, famous for the museum of 19th century local objects; Vopnafjörður, known for its salmon and untouched land but also the port from where immigrants left in the 19th century; and the St Nicholas church, associated with an abandoned monastery that once had a printing press in its basement, and is a hub of literary activity.

While abroad, she visits Wordsworth’s Grasmere in the Lake District, Manchester, Paris and Basel. Every place she visits, she connects with places of literary interest and natural importance. Every such experience gives her the opportunity to reflect on the inextricable link between man, nature, creativity, culture and commerce. In an emotional moment when she hears that ancestral land in Holsfjoll had been handed over to a Chinese businessman, she writes, “Private ownership of vast tracts of land appears to be an anachronism. We’ve got to rethink the relationship between private ownership of the land and public ownership of resources.”

There are other interesting themes running through the book, such as brother-sister pairings, much like the relationship between herself and her brother, who cohabit. In the book, she speaks of the incestuous Egyptian gods Osiris and Isis, who were married and had a son; of William and Dorothy Wordsworth, who had a platonic relationship; “(a) certain Guðrún from Jökulsárhlið”, who was banished from society for bearing her brother’s child. She then fled to the mountains, where he joined her and “they lived in peace and harmony for many years, far from human habitations and in defiance of the law”.

Eir’s novel brings up the question of love between brother and sister, referring in one instance to the Egyptian gods Osiris and Isis.

Eir’s novel brings up the question of love between brother and sister, referring in one instance to the Egyptian gods Osiris and Isis.

The diary entries also reveal the writer’s fascination with the coexistence of the Christian liturgical calendar with that of the lunar calendar, reaffirming the steadfast relationship man has maintained with nature over centuries, and which acquires mythical and religious dimensions. Finally Oddný Eir’s love for literature is always lurking, with liberal references to books she is reading, which she links to her own life: “It’s so embarrassing to think that someone is actually interested in what you’re thinking. And in that regard, it’s almost unbelievable that autobiographies are published. Who cares about your story? I bought a little book by Thoreau in a bookshop last night, with this statement on the first page: I will therefore ask those of my readers who feel no particular interest in me to pardon me if I undertake to answer some of these questions in this book.”

Land Of Love And Ruins is reminiscent of the leisurely pace of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria. Solitude is important to both the writers to contemplate their surroundings. The texts may be nearly two centuries apart, but their core ideas of subjectivity and man’s relationship with nature seem to address universal issues, which even 200 years after the Romantic movement continue to be relevant.

Oddný Eir writes: “Our relationship with nature needs to be renewed, our connection to the future. In this prolonged limbo and uncertainty, we’re lacking a vision of the future.”

Eir is a magical writer with a powerful voice who is not to be missed.

Land Of Love And Ruins: By Oddný Eir, translated from the Icelandic by Philip Roughton, Restless Books, 240 pages, $24.99.

16 December 2016 

 

Svetlana Alexievich Second-Hand Time: The Last of the Soviets (Translated by Bela Shayevich)

38077-vnmgcbvbbz-1469206831Second-Hand-Time_150_RGB-682x1024(My review of Nobel winner Svetlana Alexievich’s Second-Hand Time was published in Scroll on 23 July 2016 with the title” Imagine the tragedy of abandoning Communism without knowing how to live with capitalism”. Here is the link: http://scroll.in/article/812306/imagine-the-tragedy-of-abandoning-communism-without-knowing-how-to-live-with-capitalism. I am c&p the text below too. )

Nobel Prize winner (2015) Svetlana Alexievich’s Second-Hand Time: The Last of the Soviets explores what the aftermath of the fall of USSR meant for ordinary folks. Svetlana is a Belarusian journalist who was born in Ukraine, writes in Russian and lived in Paris for nearly 11 years before returning to Minsk to be with her daughter and granddaughter. According to the New York Times, “she had left to protest the regime of the Belarussian president Alexander Lukashenko, who has been in power since 1994 and curtailed press freedom. She said she planned to remain in Minsk and hoped the Nobel would give her some protection and freedom to speak her mind.” Based on interviews carried out between 1991 and 2012, the book was published in Russian in 2013, with the first English edition coming out in 2016.

By the little people consists of a series of transcripts of interviews. Sometimes these are structured thoughts, sometimes ramblings and sometimes monologues. Rarely does Alexievich intrude with comments or even an introduction to the speaker. At most, a reference to the person or the memory being recorded will be acknowledged in the chapter heading, such as “On Romeo and Juliet…except their names were Margarita and Abulfaz”. No wonder Russian-American journalist Masha Gessen calls the 2015 Nobel Prize winner a “memory keeper”.

According to Bela Shayevich, the translator of Second-Hand Time, the book is “an update of 19th-century Russian literature for the 21st century.” People read Russian novels not for the happy endings, she added, but “because there is great catharsis in great pain and then something that is sublime.” Listing it as part of her Summer Reads 2016 in The Guardian, Marina Warner called it “a Greek tragic chorus of memories about the Soviet Union”.

The stories we hear add up to something close to a dystopia created by Communist indoctrination. Having subjected the former Soviet citizens to almost an artificial reality, the regime incapacitated them from understanding the transformation of their society after 1989, when Communism began to fade.

“My mother is not going to help raise my daughter…I won’t let her. If she had her way, my child would only watch Socialist cartoons because they’re ‘humane’. But when the cartoon is over, you have to go out on the street, into a completely different world.” As an ex-Army officer who had fought in Afghanistan told Alexievich, “It’s important to write it down while there are still people around who remember it…we’d work the night shift, unloading train cars, or as security guards. Laying asphalt. The people working alongside me were PhDs, doctors, surgeons. I even remember a pianist from the symphony. …socialism is alchemy.”

What also emerges tragically from these accounts is the fact that ordinary people did not even have the skills to survive in the post-Soviet landscape, after the disintegration of the USSR. They had been brought up to believe in dreams such as the motherland. This is a constant lament in the book – the inability of many people to understand basics, such as what is real money, how it operates, and the value of it. Many did not know how to earn a living in the new socio-economic system, and rapidly sank into poverty.

Distilled testimonies

In an interview to the Dalkey Archive Press when her book Voices from Chernobyl was published, Alexievich said she sees her work as witnessing. She repeated this in her interview to The Millions: “I’m interested in little people. The little, great people, is how I would put it, because suffering expands people. In my books these people tell their own, little histories, and big history is told along the way. We haven’t had time to comprehend what already has and is still happening to us, we just need to say it. To begin with, we must at least articulate what happened.”

In the opening chapter of Second-Hand Time, Alexievich writes of her intent to document the Communist collective memory, which recalls Pravda, Little Octoberists, parades, Solzhenitsyn, Komsomol, and allegiance to the motherland: “In writing, I’m piecing together the history of ‘domestic’, ‘interior’ socialism. As it existed in a person’s soul. I’ve always been drawn to this miniature expanse: one person, the individual. It’s where everything really happens…It never ceases to amaze me how interesting everyday life really is. There are endless number of human truths. History is concerned solely with the facts; emotions are outside of its realm of interest. In fact, it’s considered improper to admit feelings into history. But I look at the world as a writer and not a historian. I am fascinated by people.”

An insight into her fascinating methodology reveals a practice not uncommon amongst those who document oral histories. According to Alexievich, she “selects one out of five interviews, and that one makes it into the published book. For each person I record four tapes or more, making 100-150 printed pages, depending on the voice, timbre and the pace of the oral story, and then only about ten pages remain…”

So the seeming chaos of individual narratives has a strong underlying sense of structure, much like the ordered chaos of Darcy’s garden in Pride and Prejudice. These stream of consciousness testimonials are the common form of recording oral narratives, particularly of women survivors, of a traumatic experience. The form is a testament to the writer’s sensitivity as a listener, allowing the interviewee to speak openly and without fear. These are experiences that, Alexievich is quick to remind us, formed “a large part of our lives – more, even, than love. Thus, the Russian experience of suffering acquires particular value.”

“I grew up in a dissident family…in a dissident kitchen…My parents knew Andrei Sakharov, they distributed Samizdat. Along with them, I read Vassily Grossman, Yevgenia Ginzburg, Dovlatov, listened to Radio Liberty. In 1991, I was, of course, in front of the White House, in a human chain, prepared to sacrifice my life to prevent the return of Communism. Not a single one of my friends were Communists. For us, Communism was inextricably linked with the Terror, the Gulag. A cage. We thought it was dead. Gone forever. Twenty years have passed…I go into my son’s room, and what do I see but a copy of Marx’s Das Kapital on his desk, and Trotsky’s My Life on his bookshelf…I can’t believe my eyes! Is Marx making a comeback? Is this a nightmare? Am I awake or am I dreaming? My son studies at the university, he has a lot of friends, and I’ve started eavesdropping on their conversations. They drink tea in our kitchen and argue about The Communist Manifesto …Marxism is legal again, on trend, a brand. They wear T-shirts with pictures of Che Guevara and Lenin on them. [ Despairingly] Nothing has taken root. It was all for naught.”

The blurb on the dust jacket begins: “What if you could tell history through the countless voices of ordinary people who lived through it?” It is as if in one fell swoop the editors have negated the very existence of the discipline of subaltern history while using the very same idea. Maybe Alexievich’s preferred definition of “witness” would have been more appropriate.

Svetlana Alexievich Second-Hand Time: The Last of the Soviets (Translated by Bela Shayevich) Juggernaut Books, New Delhi, 2016. Hb. Pp. 570. Rs 699

A paragraph that could not be included in the published article for reasons of length is reproduced below: 

In the case of Soviet society, in seven decades, they went from the Romanov era, Bolshevik Revolution, CommunismRussia-Putin-sworn-in-again ( Stalin et al) and then post-1989 hurtled completely unprepared into a capitalist economy society soon to be dominated by Putin. As Simon Sebag Montefiore says in his magnificently detailed and stupendously rich history of The Romanovs: 1613-1918 says: It is ironic that now, two centuries after the Romanovs finally agreed a law of succession, Russian presidents still effectively nominate their successors just as Peter the Great did.” ( pxx-xi). And yet Putin, the Russian president’s state symbol is the two-headed eagle that was of the Romanovs too. This direct linkage to the royal period of Russian history refuses to acknowledge the communist era except for the trifle detail of Putin having been an ex-KGB officer, the secret police of the Soviet Union.

Simon Sebag Montefiore The Romanovs: 1613-1918 Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London, 2016. Hb. Pp. 746. Rs 1299 ( Distributed by Hachette India)

Salil Tripathi, “Detours: Songs of the Open Road”

Detours( Noted London-based Indian journalist Salil Tripathi’s third book, Detours, is a collection of his column/essays on travel writing. This book is meant to be savoured. I was able to read one, maximum two, essays at a time. There was so much to absorb and appreciate in each essay in terms of the rich cultural experiences, the noises, colour, smells, details about the landscape, socio-political characteristics of the places he visits at that particular time with some history deftly blended in. Every single element seems to have his attention for detail. For instance, each chapter heading is carefully selected, it is appropriate for what follows in the essay but also resonates with the reader at many levels. It is rare to find such craftsmanship in a book today. Salil Tripathi has been a man of letters for some decades giving him immense practice in relying upon words to share, comment, dissect and analyse an experience but he does so without ever being dull. So reading Detours is infinitely pleasurable since not for a second does one miss the lack of photographs, sketches or any other form of illustration to support the travelogue. Just focus on the man and his words. This is armchair tourism at its finest!

I am posting an extract from the introduction reproduced with permission from the publishers.) 

As I started working on the essays, I looked back at the great travel writing I had read—Mark Twain, Eric Newby, Salil TripathiPaul Theroux, Ian Buruma, Pico Iyer, and William Dalrymple are among the writers through whose words I began to look at the world differently. I had also read many entertaining accounts, of an American or British writer abroad—like S J Perelman or George Mikes—and enjoyed the tragicomedy that followed. But getting off the beaten track and travelling on roads not taken to reach quieter places seemed so much more enticing. I also read many accounts of the outsider looking in at India, the western gaze trying to make sense of the mysterious east. Mine was an attempt to look at the world through Indian eyes—not as if it was an empire-striking-back, for that would be too presumptuous: how can anyone born in India claim to speak on behalf of a billion people? Rather, mine would be an attempt to look at the world through a sensibility that had been shaped by India and later tinged by other cultures.

I hadn’t left India until 1975 when I was still thirteen, on a tour organised by my school to Nepal. In 1979 I spent a few weeks in Scotland on a student exchange programme. In 1983 I went to the United States to study and returned home in 1986. I moved abroad in 1991, when I left for Singapore, and then in 1999, for England. Each journey affected in some way how I saw the world. My work—as a correspondent first, and later, as a researcher/advocate for human rights organisations—has taken me to fifty-five countries (including India). I’ve learned something new from each visit; I’ve made lasting friendships in many cities and towns around the world. It is impossible to write down each experience. This book attempts to reveal the world I have seen.

The book is divided into three parts: War & After, Words & Images, and Loss & Remembrance. The first section, War & After, deals with places that have been deeply affected by armed conflict or have had human rights challenges—Bogotá, Jakarta, Berlin, Yangon, Mostar, Phnom Penh, Cape Town and Johannesburg, Singapore, Lagos, and Istanbul. In the next section, Words & Images, I write about places that I have understood better because certain writers or artists have made those places more vivid: Bombay (now Mumbai), Amsterdam, Paris, Madrid, Barcelona, Nairobi and Naivasha, Arusha and Kilimanjaro, Granada, Valparaiso and Isla Negra, Kyoto, Srimongol and Shilaidaha, Shanghai, and New York. The third section, Loss & Remembrance, is the most personal; it is, in a sense, about Karuna Sirkar, my wife who died in 2006. I have written about the places I had travelled with her in the two decades we were together, or where I could feel her presence on later visits; or the places where I went with my sons Udayan and Ameya after her passing, as the three of us tried to pick ourselves up to understand the meaning of our shattering loss: Ludlow and Proctersville, Collioure, Geneva, Stockholm, Venice, Beachy Head, Ålesund and Oslo, and San Francisco.

Salil Tripathi Detours: Songs of the Open Road Tranquebar Press, an imprint of Westland Ltd., 2016. Hb. pp. 380. Rs. 695 

16 Feb 2016

“Mr Mojo: A biography of Jim Morrison” by Dylan Jones

Mr MojoMorrison was the sexiest bookworm to ever pick up a microphone, he was an inspired lyricist and one of the most celebrated pop icons of the sixties. But he was also a wilfully enigmatic, pretentious loud-mouth, a self-proclaimed poet who wore the mask of the drunk. He was the impotent alcoholic, the scarred idol. He was the King of Corn, the consummate showman, the petulant clown. He was too clever for his own good, and often too stupid to care. Masochist, emotional sadist, incurable romantic — Morrison was all of these things. But the T-shirts don’t have room for any of them, instead promoting only the image of the gaunt, all-conquering sex beast, the Crawling King Snake, the Killer on the Road, the Lord of the Dance, the Lizard King, Mr Mojo Risin’.

( p.164)

Jim Morrison belongs to the club of super-talented legendary musicians who died at 27. The others being Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain and most recently, Amy Winehouse. In a short span he had made his mark as a musician, a stage performer and for a wild life offstage. There are no dearth of books on the man. From authorised biographies to unofficial accounts to fantastic picture books documenting Jim Morrison’s performances and his life. The classic image conjured up in one’s mind is of this tall, thin, lean singer wearing a black leather outfit, holding onto the microphone with both his hands and singing. His band members seem to be also expressionless and doing their work, but the music that they were producing was extraordinary and decades later continues to sound so fresh.

New generations continue to be fascinated by Jim Morrison. Many continue to make their pilgrimage to his grave in Paris’s Pere-Lachaise Patricia Kenneally and Jim Morrissoncemetery. New fans need to be acquainted with the music, style, origins and antics of this larger-than-life musician. Along with The Doors, Jim Morrison has been a huge influence on subsequent generations of musicians.  But producing older books for a new generation of readers does not always work, so to have a new biography written by award-winning and seasoned journalist, Dylan Jones makes ample sense. This new biography is a slim volume, a zippy and raw account of Jim Morrison’s life, his stage antics, including a long conversation with his former partner, Patricia Kennealy. She was a rock critic who as editor-in-chief of Jazz and Pop interviewed Jim Morrison in January 1969. Later Jim Morrison and she became lovers and “wed” on Midsummer’s Night 1970, at 10:30 pm. It was a Wicca wedding, a ceremony based on ‘white’ witchcraft. Kennealy was a practising member of a New York coven, and the ceremony was conducted by its founders, a high priest and priestess.  Jim Morrison too addressed her as “Patricia, my wife” but they were not “legally” wed. Yet after his death she changed her name to “Kennealy-Morrison”. For the first time Dylan Jones interviews her.

patricia_kennealy_morrison_2003_02_09Kennealy developed something of a reputation with the band and Morrison’s record company, and she had a reputation for being a practicing white witch, so for years after Morrison’s death no one would go near her. As no one had ever interviewed her before — they appeared to be too scared — I began looking  for her in New York. I spoke with Elektra Records, and with the thirty or so people I interviewed for this book, in London, New York and Los Angeles, but not only could none of them point me in the right direction, some advised me to steer clear of her completely. ‘She’s dangerous,’ I was told. ‘She’ll eat you alive.’ In the end it took me about forty minutes to track her down, simply by looking through the New York phone directory. And she was charm personified. 


(p.127) 

Mr Mojo is a biography for a new generation who are discovering a legendary musician for them for the first time. It is a fascinating account that there is no need for any pictures to be tipped into the book — there are none. It is a balanced profile of Jim Morrison contextualising it well, spanning a period from World War II when he was born in 1943, his father a Naval officer went off to the war to the wild sixties, his family cutting him off to his untimely death in Paris in 1970. It is a well-written book primarily because it is not hagiography, a trap many books about successful musicians fall into. This is a class apart.

Read it.

Dylan Jones Mr Mojo: A biography of Jim Morrison Bloomsbury, London, 2015. Pb. pp. 190 Rs 199

(Note: All images are off the Internet. I do not hold the copyright to any of these. If you do know who the rightful owner is, please let me know. I would gladly acknowledge them in this post. )

21 May 2015

Marcos Giralt Torrente, “Paris”

parisNo word  can change the past, and no word is the right word if you say it when what it describes as the past and not the present. In the present, there are no words. Words come later, and then we use them in the same way, we can all describe things and give our opinions about is not ours, even though it never happened to us. We don’t need someone to spell out what he or she is telling us is the whole thing or only part of it, and our doubts will remain unassuaged. 

Paris p.337)

Marcos Giralt Torrente’s debut novel, Paris, won the XVII Premio Herralde de Novela prize in 1999 and the Spanish National Book Award in 2011. Fourteen years later it was translated from Spanish into English by Margaret Jull Costa and published by Hispabooks. It is about a young man who tries to recall his past and put together a narrative, for this he relies solely upon his own memory. At the same time observing acutely that “memory is a great temptation, and what could be easier than to highlight some memories at the expense of others and retrospectively draw up a synthesis adapted to what has endured rather than what actually happened?” ( p.69) He is trying to understand what happened when he was a young boy of nine and his father was whisked away by the police, release and subsequent disappearance from their life; his relationship with his mother and her’s with her sister, Aunt Delfina and the innumerable conversations he heard or was privy to. But he is most curious to know why his mother left him with Delfina and went off to Paris for eight months. He never discovered the reason or what she did there and now when he is trying to recall it is too late, his mother has dementia.

The novel meanders and explores but never gets dull. In fact the reader gets the feeling as if they are shadowing the narrator and being able to listen to all his thoughts and conversations clearly. It is an odd feeling of being in a space that is a peculiar blend of being immersed in a cinematic experience of watching the narrator talk, observe, reflect, reminisce and yet at the same time to read and absorb at leisure the events that unfold. There is nothing in the measured pace of storytelling that prepares you for the unconventional conclusion.

Paris was on the inaugural list of a new independent publishing house established in Madrid –Hispabooks. Founded in 2011 by editors, Gregorio Doval and Ana Perez Galvan, Hispabooks is a publishing house focusing on contemporary Spanish fiction in English-language translation, both in eBook and trade paperback format, targeting readers around the world who want to explore the best of today’s Spanish literature. ( www.hispabooks.com and an interview with the founders: http://bit.ly/1EnBdqc)

This is a fine book to have been published and worth reading. Hence I was a little disappointed when it did not make it to the shortlist of the Best Translated Book Award 2015 ( http://bit.ly/1EnBRnO) announced on 5 May 2015.

8 May 2015

Andre Schiffrin, “Publishing is transforming”

Andre Schiffrin, “Publishing is transforming”

( It is a sad day indeed. Andre Schriffin, a publishing legend has passed away. I interviewed Andre Schriffin in 2011 when he came to India. At the time I interviewed him for BusinessWorld online. Here is the link: http://www.businessworld.in/news/economy/%18publishing-is-transforming%19/359818/page-1.html, published 11 Nov 2011. I am c&p the interview below as well. ) 

Andre SchriffinParis-based publishing luminary Andre Schiffrin is renowned not necessarily for the writers he has published (Chomsky, Foucault, Hobsbawm, etc.), but also for his successful business models in publishing. Jaya Bhattacharji Rose caught up with him to discuss the present, past and future of books. Excerpts:

You have been in publishing for over 60 years now. How have things changed?
The role of the reader has always been important, but never as much as now, with the arrival of digital publishing and big chains. The challenges are mostly negative, especially for independent publishers. Google and Amazon are creating a monopoly, destroying the bookstore and the paperback. (E-books are as cheap as paperbacks.) With Amazon venturing into direct publishing, the future looks bleak for maintaining the publi-shing models of the past, where there was a stress on quality, and on nurturing new writers and thinkers. A good modern-day example worth emulating is what MIT is doing with its curriculum. It is an important model where the output is available for free.

Can you elaborate on the challenges, especially for independent publishing? 
Publishing is a macrocosm of society. Publishers need to take a risk and experi-ment with ideas and authors. Unfortunately, more than ever before, there exists a market censorship. Big publishers are being selective and, at times, conservative about what they publish. Secondly, the political decision is paramount in helping independent publishers. For instance, in Germany fixed pricing of books or resale price maintenance is important as it keeps independent bookstores alive. Publi-shers and importers of books in German have to fix a price for each book published or imported. Fixed price means all retailers will initially offer a book for sale at the same price, in whatever period of the year.

A third challenge is distribution networks. A good distribution network is the key for their survival. For example, in France, over a thou-sand independent stores have come together to share information and help each other. This network works well. So, you can order a title at any bookshop and within 24 hours it is delive-red. Finally, the role of the author in suppor-ting the independent publisher is significant.

How do you look at social media and the spaces it allows?
I am not against technology, but social media spaces are limited. It is not always easy to locate and discover, and engage with opinion makers there. It is important to be printed, published and disseminated in the traditional manner. A recent example is Time For Outrage, written by 93-year-old Stephane Hessel. Published by a small French publisher in Montpellier, and priced at a mere e3 — it has sold over 3.5 million copies so far.

How have troubles in the US and the Eurozone impacted publishing? 
Publishing in these territories is under-going a transformation. The growth of publishing firms is mainly due to M&As. But the most significant impact for Indian publi-shing is in the growth of printing. Publishers from these territories seek ways of being cost-effective, by outsourcing printing to India— and they have been doing so for a while now.

(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 21-11-2011)

Marc Auge, “No Fixed Abode”

Marc Auge, “No Fixed Abode”

Layout 1

Ethno fiction…a narrative that evokes a social fact through the subjectivity of a particular individual. however, since this is neither autobiography nor confession, that fictional individual has to be created ‘from scratch’ or, in other words, out of the thousand and one details observed in every day life. ( p vii)

Slim, elegantly produced volume. It belies the disturbing facts that lie within. The horror of the story is not just in the plot but in the events seeming plausible. The blurb on the dust jacket says “Contrary to popular opinion, according to the website for the Coalition for the Homeless, forty-four per cent of the homeless in First World countries actually have jobs.”

A book I would recommend.

Marc Auge, No Fixed Abode:Ethnofiction
Translated by Chris Turner
Seagull Books, Calcutta, 2013
Hb, pg. 80
$19 / GBP 12.50 / INR 325