The Paris Review Posts

Louise Erdrich “The Blue Jay’s Dance”

Novelist Louise Erdrich’s The Blue Jay’s Dance about balancing life as a mother and a writer is a fascinating account. It was written in the mid-nineties but is ever so relevant decades later. There was a lovely essay written in the The Paris Review by Sarah Mekendick on revisiting The Blue Jay’s Dance. It was published on 10 May 2017. It is a book certainly worth reading by many especially new mothers.

There are many passages that are beautifully written encapsulating the new life women professionals find themselves plunged into with the birth of a child. Two really stand out. These are:

To keep the door to the other self — the writing self — open, I scratch messages on the enevelopes of letters I can’t answer, in the margins of books I’m too tired to review. On pharmacy prescription bags, dime-store notebooks, children’s construction paper, I keep writing. 

(p.5)

and the second is:

Most of the instruction given to pregnant women is as chirpy and condescening as the usual run of maternity clothes — the wide tops with droopy bows slung beneath the neck, the T-shirts with arrows pointing to what can’t be missed, the childish sailor collars, puffed sleeves, and pastels. It is cute advice — what to pack in the hospital bag (don’t forget a toothbrush, deodorant, a comb or a hair dryer) — or it’s worse: pseudo-spiritual, misleading, silly, and even cruel. In giving birth to three daughters, I have found it impossible to eliminate pain through breathing, by focusing on a soothing photograph. It is true pain one is attempting to endure in drugless labor, not “discomfort,” and the way to deal with pain is not to call it something else but to increase in strength, to prepare the will. Women are strong, strong, terribly strong. We don’t know how strong we are until we’re pushing out our babies. We are too often treated like babies having babies when we should be in training, like acolytes, novices to high priestesshood, like serious applicants for the space program. 

(p.11-12)

28 November 2018 

“Milkman” by Anna Burns

Man Booker Prize winner 2018 Anna Burn’s novel Milkman is about a nameless eighteen-year-old narrator, most often referred to as the “reading-while-walking” girl who prefers to read nineteenth rather than twentieth century literature because she does not like the twentieth century. Milkman is set in a nameless Irish city —-p robably Belfast just as the era is never confirmed. It is about the city caught in the battles between the IRA, the Renouncers and the British Army possibly during the 1970s judging by the clues peppered throughout the story. It is about the girl observing and commenting upon her neighbourhood. Unfortunately she begins to be stalked by the forty-one-year-old “Milkman” — not the real one. ( The IRA delivered petrol bombs in milk crates. ) Then to her dismay tongues begin to wag and even her mother is not willing to believe her — that there is no truth in the rumours being circulated. Immediately after winning the prize Anna Burns was quoted as saying “Although it is recognisable as this skewed form of Belfast, it’s not really Belfast in the 70s. I would like to think it could be seen as any sort of totalitarian, closed society existing in similarly oppressive conditions … I see it as a fiction about an entire society living under extreme pressure, with longterm violence seen as the norm.”

Milkman was many years in the making and is the stuff literary legends are made of. The fifty-six-year-old Anna Burns acknowledging the fairy tale Booker win said “‘It’s nice to feel I’m solvent. That’s a huge gift’” It is an extraordinary novel for very early on in the story it is as if the reader is an invisible companion to the narrator observing the proceedings with insights into how they think. There are large portions of the narrative that are running text, a single paragraph that runs across pages, which at first may seem daunting to read but is not so. Very often Milkman is being referred to as being Beckettian but Anna Burns clarifies in her interviews that she only read Samuel Beckett once her novel had been written. Whereas in fact it would be worthwhile to notice how the form of her prose, the fluidity of it, the mildly digressing style while observing and reporting incidents dispassionately, and at other times conveying neighbourhood gossip and events as is, in a detached dead pan manner, without any analysis is ultimately a very womanly quality.

Milkman is much like the commentary many women inevitably internalise. The novel merely makes visible that which is mostly kept out of public spaces for women as it would be mostly perceived as idle chatter. It is also remarkable how effectively Anna Burns portrays a reading-while-walking girl who is in all likelihood absorbed in her book but is also able to observe the landscape and people around her as she walks past. There is violence which she acknowledges in many interviews post-Booker win were because of the Ireland she grew up in. There is a particularly horrific and violent scene involving the butchering of dogs and left in a pile. In The New Statesman interview she says:

… I remember seeing that as a child. It was down the bottom of our street. I was seven or eight, so I don’t really know how high the pile was, but it did look like a mound of dead dogs, with their throats cut – I couldn’t see any heads, so I thought all their heads were missing. It was one of those images that stay with you.

The remarkable effect Milkman has upon its readers is for its relevance to the #MeToo movement is purely coincidental as Anna Burns has reiterated this novel was completed in 2014, well before the movement began. At the same its powerful impact is for its visibilisation of the silences most women are trained to inculcate. Most often women across cultures are socially conditioned to keep their opinions to themselves and conform to what is expected of them. Also their word is very likely dismissed especially when it involves as in the case of a creepy, older man, a stalker, who also happens to belong to the IRA. So the young narrator gets pushed more and more into a corner with everyone including her mother disbelieving her about the false rumours being circulated about her and the milkman. Also by resorting to use the interior monologue style of writing for most part of the novel Anna Burns makes the reader privy to the innermost thoughts of the girl thereby stripping away any pretence the narrator may “normally” have adopted in real life.

There are so many portions in the story that will resonate with women readers while being revelatory to male readers. As novelist Idra Novey points out in her Paris Review essay “The Silence of Sexual Assault in Literature” ( 4 Oct 2018) it is the silences that are critical in literature — what is glossed over and that which is hidden from view.

Though the story [Flannery O’Connor’s story “Good Country People”] was published over sixty years ago, the sick abuse of power is disturbingly similar to any number of testimonies that have emerged this past year. O’Connor artfully elides what exactly the Bible salesman does, or doesn’t do, to Hulga in the barn. That elision evokes the roaring silence that she will now endure, returning to this horrifying experience within the solitude of her mind.

It is exactly this silencing of the women that has remained quietly hidden away from the “public” view —- a view that has been mostly defined by patriarchal codes of conduct. Although these sorts of conversations, thoughts and ideas being expressed freely now in literature are and have always been familiar to women.

Milkman is a powerful book that begs to be read widely.

To buy the Milkman on Amazon India: 

Paperback

Kindle 

26 Oct 2018 

 

Salman Rushdie, ” Two years eight months and twenty-eight nights: A novel”

RushdieHistory is unkind to those it abandons, and can be equally unkind to those who make it. (p14)

Salman Rushdie’s latest book, Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights is fiction like nothing before it. It is in the same class as Midnight’s Children —ground breaking literary fiction. Like the One Thousand and One Nights that it echoes in its title it is an intricate web of stories within stories, which showcase Rushdie’s technical, verbal and literary expertise. It is tales within tales spread over many centuries. It is about a Djinn, Duniya, and her love for a human – Ibn Rashd better known in the West as Averroes– and their family. ( Ibn Rashd was also the name Rushdie’s grandfather adopted and adapted to created his surname. “Rushdie” is not an inherited family name.)

He has created a world, sufficiently far-off in the future to create and discuss life today without really disturbing anyone’s equanimity in the present. It is very hard not to consider parts of it as being autobiographical, particularly when the authorial narrative intrudes to comment upon war, freedom, choices made as humans etc. Although in an interview with poet Tishani Doshi for the Hindu, Rushdie says categorically that autobiography is less and less important for him. He writes “something original and strange and unusual, and now there’s a mood for real life stories and so my book is the kind of anti- Knausgård”. ( http://bit.ly/1OmOcla ) Yet it is hard to separate the two parts of a man — the lived/autobiographical element and the literary fiction. For a man who has lived under the shadow of a fatwa, he has lived daily with the fear of death, much like Scheherazade the narrator of One Thousand and One Nights. In Rushdie’s case, it has made him fearless and outspoken. His speeches and articles on freedom of expression are admirable for their clarity and sharpness. For instance, listen to Rushdie at the India Today Conclave on 18 March 2012:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tNzGgYvz92s . It is this confident, breezy style evident in his literary experimentation. From his very first novel it has been evident but over time it has been taken to another level — another landmark in modern literary fiction for writers to admire, probably emulate.

In Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights Rushdie sparkles when his anger simmers through the novel, but at first glance it does not seem so to exist. It just seems like a magic realism tale where innumerable characters waltz on and off the page as and when they need to play their parts. There is little time for the reader to create a “bond” with any character save for a tenuous one with Geronimo the levitating gardener. It is more like a manifesto of Rushdie’s experiences as  a writer. In a Paris Review interview of 2005, he had said: “My life has given me this other subject: worlds in collision. How do you make people see that everyone’s story is now a part of everyone else’s story? It’s one thing to say it, but how can you make a reader feel that is their lived experience?” (Salman Rushdie, The Art of Fiction No. 186 Interviewed by Jack Livings, The Paris Review, Summer 2005, No 174 http://bit.ly/1OmU2Tv ) This twelfth novel too is like an amalgamation of his experiences — cultural and literary — brought forth as a fabulist tale. It can be read for what it is at first reading or appreciated for its multiple layers. Richness of the text lies in the degree of engagement you can have with it as a reader. Ironically this novel makes a mockery of the information-overloaded age since many of the literary, cultural, political, historical and linguistic references are acquired over a period of time with reading and experience. The text cannot be deciphered by looking up references on Wikipedia. It won’t make the text work satisfactorily. Rushdie is delightfully unapologetic about blending languages and cultural references. He is what he is. This is it.

In the 2005 Paris Review interview Rushdie had been asked, “Could you possibly write an apolitical book?”. He had replied, “Yes, I have great interest in it, and I keep being annoyed that I haven’t. I think the space between private life and public life has disappeared in our time.”

If possible, read Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights  in conjunction with Joseph Anton, his memoir. But read you must.

Here are links to some recent articles and interviews with Rushdie published to coincide with the launch of Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights.

Rushdie interviewed by Tishani Doshi in The Hindu, 13 September 2015. ” ‘I kind of got sick of the truth’ ” ( http://bit.ly/1OmOcla)

Nilanjana Roy’s wonderful analysis of the novel in Business Standard, 7 September 2015. “2.8.28: More hit than myth”  ( http://bit.ly/1OmP0qe )

Salil Tripathi’s review-interview with Rushdie in The Mint, 4 September 2015.  “Salman Rushdie: ‘I have no further interest in non-fiction’ ”  ( http://bit.ly/1OmQnVW )

A profile in the Guardian. An interview conducted in Rushdie’s literary agent, Andrew Wylie’s office, by Fiona Maddocks, 6 September 2015  “Salman Rushdie: ‘It might be the funniest of my novels’ ” ( http://bit.ly/1OmNtAn )

Ursula le Guin’s review in the Guardian, 4 September 2015   “Two Years, Eight Months and Twenty‑Eight Nights by Salman Rushdie review – a modern Arabian Nights”  ( http://bit.ly/1OmNKDF )

An interview with Alexandra Alter in the New York Times, 4 September 2015. “Salman Rushdie on His New Novel, With a Character Who Floats Just Above Ground”  (http://nyti.ms/1OmPhJU )

“The novel is vividly described and rich in mayhem – Isn’t this mayhem reminiscent of the knowledge we carry in our head” Eileen Battersby in the Irish Times, 12 September 2015.  “Two Years Eight Months & Twenty-Eight Nights review: Rushdie on overdrive” ( http://bit.ly/1OmPWec )

Salman Rushdie Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights Hamish Hamilton, an imprint of Penguin Books India, Gurgaon, 2015. Hb. pp. 290 Rs 599

13 September 2015

Nell Zink, “The Wallcreeper”

The WallcreeperNell Zink’s debut novel, The Wallcreeper, was published in 2014. (It has recently been followed by Mislaid.) The Wallcreeper is a slim novel, about Tiffany and Stephen who met when they were colleagues at a pharmaceutical firm in Philadelphia USA. They married within few weeks and relocated to Berlin, Germany. Tiffany learns, “I wasn’t a feminist. Even men in their seventies…would raise their eyebrows when I said I had followed my husband from Philadelphia to Berne and then to Berlin. I couldn’t come up with a step I’d taken in life for my own sake.” The Wallcreeper  is also about birding, open marriage, environmental activism and later, environmental sabotage too.

From the opening line of the novel you are hooked to the story. “I was looking at the map when Stephen swerved, hit the rock, and occasioned the marriage.” The novel continues in the same calm, confident, feisty and forthright tone. The former bricklayer and secretary, fifty-year-old Nell Zink was published for the first time last year at the insistence of Jonathan Franzen. She had written a fanzine to him a few years ago. Upon reading her prose that she began sending him regularly, he persuaded her to stop writing for an audience of one and consider a larger readership. Her debut novel, The Wallcreeper, had already been accepted by a small press called Dorothy that specialises in women’s writing. So Nell Zink’s second novel, Mislaid, was represented by Franzen’s agent and got Zink a six-figure advance. Both the novels have received a resounding reception in USA and are soon to be available in India too.

When you write for an audience of one, it is inevitable that the writing is imbued with a rawness and a sense of intimacy that is refreshingly confident. It a no-holds-barred style of writing. Surprisingly Nell Zink’s novels are churned out rapidly in a period of three weeks. They are well structured, with no flabbiness to the prose and bring in pithy observations on issues such as science, ethics, environment, feminism, freedom, the institution of marriage etc. On marriage, Nell Zink writes, “Marriage isn’t a sacrament. It’s just a bunch of forms to fill out. It either works or it doesn’t. Do what you want.” She is an eclectic and voracious reader judging by the literary references sprinkled throughout the novel. Otherwise how else do you account for a casual reference made yoking together Stanislaw Lem and The World of Apu in one paragraph? ( The World of Apu is a 1959 Bengali film drama made by noted filmmaker Satyajit Ray. It was based on the 1932 Bengali novel, Aparajito, by Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay.) She writes as people would speak when sure that their statements are being made in confidence. The one-liners that are embedded throughout her story come across as off-the-cuff perceptive comments that seem to have been carried over from the spoken word onto paper and fixed. This probably occurs due to the speed at which she thinks and writes prose. It is an incredible form of writing.

The cover design for the book is stupendous showing a wallcreeper feather. Yet I cannot help but think the design is Burial Ritesvery similar to another fantastic debut novel, Burial Rites by Hannah Kent.

This profile of Nell Zink in the New Yorker by Kathryn Schulz published on 18 May 2015 is fabulous. http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/05/18/outside-in . Some other links worth reading are:

Robin Romm, review of The Wallcreeper, NYT, 17 Oct 2014  http://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/19/books/review/nell-zink-wallcreeper-review.html?_r=0

From the Guardian, January 2015: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/jan/04/nell-zink-jonathan-franzen-clear-distinction-taking-career-seriously-writing-seriously

The Paris Review, December 2014:  http://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2014/12/08/purity-of-essence-one-question-for-nell-zink/

An interview in  Vice, June 2015: http://www.vice.com/read/nell-zink-is-damn-free-585

A profile in The Literary Hub, May 2015: http://lithub.com/the-mislaid-plans-of-nell-zink/

I cannot recommend this book enough. It is not necessarily only for the story, but the style too.

Nell Zink The Wallcreeper Fourth Estate, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, London, 2014. Hb. pp.168 

4 September 2015