Fate, Chance and Desperate Men Sunday, Jan 22 2006 

Woody Allen’s Match Point

(WARNING: SOME SPOILERS)

If I had to pick one word to describe Woody Allen’s new movie, Match Point, that word would be self-indulgent. Imagine that you’re one of the world’s most respected and acclaimed directors. Imagine that because of this you can get away with making a movie that celebrates all of your favourite obsessions – that allows you to combine the flamboyance of Italian opera with the angst of Russian literature, that lets you take a plot that is a neat inversion of Dostoyevsky, set it to a score that consists mainly of the immortal Caruso, and throw in some of the hottest people on the planet (and some of the most gorgeous real estate in England) for good measure. Wouldn’t that be fun? Wouldn’t it be exactly what you’ve always dreamed of doing? Because it’s not really a bad notion and because you are, after all, a fundamentally sound film maker, the audience won’t totally hate it, but that’s besides the point. The point is that you owe it to yourself to try.

For years now Allen has been trying to make ‘serious’ dramatic cinema. The results, thus far, have not been pretty. The movies that have emerged from this reimagining of himself as a cross between Strindberg and Bergman have been awkward, stilted works like September, Another Woman and Interiors (more on my thoughts on these movies here). Match Point may be the first of the movies in this mode of his – movies where Allen is almost entirely absent, movies that deal with identity and relationships and the meaning of life – that actually works.

The central premise of Match Point comes straight out of Crime and Punishment (a point that Allen impresses upon you by making his central character read the book early on and then referring to it a number of times afterwards, just in case you missed it). What if there is no God, no justice in the world? What if our lives are driven purely by chance and accident, so that who succeeds and who fails is merely a matter of luck? In Dostoyevsky’s novel, Raskolnikov’s purpose is essentially to test this hypothesis. The experiment is simple enough: Raskolnikov will commit a henious crime. If there is meaning and justice in the world, he will be punished for it, if there is none, then he will get away scot free. What contaminates the experiment in the book is the fact that Raskolnikov (and through him Dostoyevsky) is terrified by the thought of what his escape would imply, and so is driven to put himself at greater and greater risk of arrest, simply because he would rather suffer punishment than be proved right in his hypothesis. The conclusion of Crime and Punishment is thus a capitulation both on Raskolnikov’s part and on Dostoyevsky’s.

But that fact that the ending is a cop-out raises some interesting questions. What if things had gone the other way? What if Raskolnikov (or his modern-day equivalent) were to truly want to escape, what if his crime was motivated by genuine self-interest, what if he didn’t try to get caught? And what if the author had decided, despite everything to let Raskolnikov escape – what if Dostoyevsky had had the courage to stick with what he intuitively knew to be true – to state the bald truth that life is meaningless? These are not, of course, new questions – they are questions that are implicit in Crime and Punishment – the reason the novel works is because you cannot come away from it without seeing how seemingly arbitrary Raskolnikov’s punishment really is, how easily things could have turned out differently. Dostoyevsky’s great achievement is that he manages to suggest that there may be no meaning to the universe, manages to plant the seed of that doubt deep within you, without proving or disproving the point either way. The closing note of Crime and Punishment is, despite everything, a note of doubt.

Allen, by contrast, has no doubts. To him, it is clear that the world truly is about chance and that it is, in fact, better to be lucky than to be good. Match Point is an exploration of this alternate path, this road not taken from Crime and Punishment – Raskolnikov’s escape or punishment has nothing to do with the justice of his case, it is simply a matter of chance. This makes the last half an hour of the movie rich with meaning, loaded with ethical and philosophical ideas, and altogether an engrossing watch. And despite a few missteps in between (one execrable scene involving the return of the dead, for instance) Allen delivers a taut, gripping narrative here – combining a swift, nervous energy, with moments of awkward, almost neurotic suspense. The last half hour of Match Point is a mesmerising watch, and easily one of the best things Allen has done for a long time. Hitchcock would have been proud of him.

Unfortunately the first half of the movie doesn’t match up to the dramatic tension of the second. Allen has many skills, but portraying sexual tension on screen is not one of them, and his dialogue writing, while unexceptionable otherwise, is incapable of delivering passionate intensity. As the two central characters of the plot (played competently by Jonathan Rhys-Meyers [1] and Scarlett Johansson) enter a downward spiral of illicit lust, what comes through on screen feels more contrived than spontaneous, like a grotesque caricature of the overwhelming desire we are supposed to be seeing. Like some fifteen year old’s cliched version of sexual heat. Perhaps it’s because it’s a Woody Allen movie, but the inherent silliness of human passion is never very far from the surface here, and there are scenes in the early part of the movie (including one horrendous love-making in a field in the rain – shudder!) that feel almost like parodies of the real thing.

The result of this is that the first half of the movie seems to go on for too long, and never seems entirely credible. One would, of course, need to have anti-freeze in one’s veins not to be able to see how Scarlett Johansson could be a serious temptation for any man, but the grand passion between these two never comes completely alive and so it’s only when their relationship starts to fall apart that your interest in the happenings on screen begins to revive. Allen draws out some fairly ham-handed ironies contrasting the position of Rhys-Meyers with his wife (played ably by Emily Mortimer) and his mistress, but these are amusing more than funny, and there is very little else in the movie to interest one.

Oh, and that’s the other thing – this is an almost entirely humourless movie. There are a few neat moments, and one obligatory line about compatible neuroses, but that’s about it. And while many of Allen’s familiar vices are back – a fascination with expensive interiors; lots of sparkling little dinner conversations, effortlessly mingling the trivial with the profound; gorgeous music playing in the background (Caruso replaces Billy Holiday here, but the scratchy sound of the LP is still the same) – this doesn’t really feel like a Woody Allen film. If it weren’t for the familiar white on black credits mentioning Juliet Taylor, Charles H Joffe and Jack Rollins, I would have said this was more likely to be something made by Christopher Nolan than by Allen.

Bottomline: Match Point is, undoubtably, a great personal triumph for Allen – the first time that he’s made a ‘serious’ movie that is not entirely still-born. It’s not by any stretch of imagination a great film, but it’s an above average film, gripping in parts, and if there is any film-maker who has earned the right to indulge his little fancies, surely Allen has. One can only hope, however, that the success of Match Point helps to exorcise the demon rather than encourage it and we can go back to the Allen who makes the brilliantly funny films only he can make. Match Point is a good enough movie – but we don’t need Woody Allen to make it.

[1] Also known, to my female acquaintances, as that dreamy coach from Bend it like Beckham

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Trial and Error Saturday, Jan 21 2006 

Julian Barnes’ Arthur and George

The first Julian Barnes book I ever read was Flaubert’s Parrot. At the time, I’d never heard of Barnes, but the title of the book intrigued me, and I was going through an intense Flaubert reading phase, so it was book I couldn’t possibly ignore.

It remains my favourite among Barnes’ books. While I have nothing but admiration for the rest of Barnes’ work, I’ve always found him to be more impressive than exceptional – reading his other novels was a pleasure, but Flaubert’s Parrot is the only one that I found truly exciting, the only one I could consider reading again.

So when I first heard that Barnes was writing a book where Arthur Conan Doyle would be a character, I had high hopes. In the final analysis, Barnes contributed considerably to my fascination with Flaubert (a fascination that began, strangely enough, with a single line from Robert Lowell where he calls Flaubert the supreme artist) and I suppose I vaguely hoped that he would do something similar with Doyle.

That may be one reason why, in the end, Arthur and George left me disappointed. No, that’s not fair. It wasn’t really Arthur and George that left me disappointed, it was Barnes himself – Arthur and George is in every way an irreproachable book, but it is a book that could have been so much more.

Statutory plot summary: Arthur and George is, as the name suggests, the story of two people – a young half-Parsee lawyer named George Edalji who is wrongfully accused of maiming cattle, and of Arthur Conan Doyle, writer, doctor, sportsman, ‘unofficial Englishman’ who comes to his defense. The story opens with these two as children, and tracks their careers as adults until they finally come together in appealing George’s case before the Home Office. Along the way Barnes manages, with his usual understated skill, to show us the differences in temperament between these two men – George is cautious, introverted, logical, precise; but also myopic and a snob. Arthur is driven, restless, outgoing – a dreamer driven by arcane ideas of chivalry and honour who finds solace for his failure of faith in spiritism. The ironies inherent in this contrast are too numerous to go into, but each represents, in his own way, a side of British culture without being, in either case, a typical Englishman. The novel thus becomes a fascinating exploration of the schizophrenia at the heart of British culture, and Barnes’ greatest achievement for much of the book is the way he makes us feel sympathetic towards both of his characters, even when their points of view are diametrically opposed.

So far so good. The trouble is, I think, that Arthur and George is not really one book but a number of different books, and the juxtaposition of them seems as unlikely and circumstantial as the coming together of its two main protagonists. Just as one could ask what Arthur and George have to do with each other, one could also ask what the different parts of the book have to do with each other, and it’s hard to come up with a truly satisfying reply. Which is not to say that the parts don’t fit in a loose way, only that they don’t really seem necessary to each other, and I can’t help thinking that by juxtaposing them Barnes adds little value.

The parts of the book I thoroughly enjoyed were the parts that dealt with George. In portraying George’s trial and the events leading up to it, Barnes affords us a fascinating glimpse of an interesting and unusual character, a glimpse that reminded me, quite forcibly, of Camus’ L’Etranger. in his own way, Edalji is an outsider too, set apart from society not only by his racial status (though he himself is quick to argue that his conviction had nothing to do with race, a little too quick perhaps) but also, and perhaps more importantly by his own nature. The fact that George is highly myopic may be part of the reason he grows up to be the person he becomes, but it is also the most telling metaphor in the book – this is a man who sees the world as being complete in himself, and whose ability to understand the real world is therefore critically impaired. George is a blind man of Hindustan, a man who can only apprehend the world by bumping into it, and his story here is the story of how such a series of collisions adds up to a life. Race, Barnes suggests, is at least partly a red herring here – the jury is certainly prejudiced against George, but you can’t help feeling that the prejudice comes less from racial bigotry and more from an inability to understand a 27 year old man who sleeps in the same room as his father and never goes out at night. At any rate, George’s trial remains for me, the high point of the book – like a version of the L’Etranger which is deeper and more human for being less existential.

The rest of the book does not, in my opinion, quite match up to this standard. The contrast between Arthur and George is interesting, but feels at least somewhat contrived. Barnes speaks of Arthur Conan Doyle’s life at great length, but offers few or no insights into Conan Doyle as a writer, and large parts of the Arthur sections seemed irrelevant to the narrative. I mean, okay, so we understand that Doyle only took up the Edalji case because he was at a difficult point in his life, but did we really need a forty page description of Doyle’s fairly quotidian love life to understand this? This is not to say that the forty pages aren’t well written, but they seem like a tangent to the rest of the book, and compared to the seriousness of Edalji’s case, you can’t help seeing them as frivolous. The book picks up a little as Doyle begins to investigate the Edalji case, but the overall effect is faux-fiction [1] – it’s hard to take Doyle seriously here, he’s charming, but you can’t help feeling that he has no perspective. As for the last section, with its description of the seance following Doyle’s death, that too feels interesting but a little besides the point, like watching a man run a fast action race, then stop to dawdle in a field picking flowers.

It’s this lack of consistent rhythm that made Arthur and George a difficult book to read – again and again I felt Barnes lose momentum, slip back and forth between gears for no apparent reason. Almost as though her were afraid of writing too fluid, too single-purposed a book. The whole thing felt like a collection of exquisite diversions, and while the quality of writing was impeccable throughout, and each individual piece was engaging, the lack of overall direction irritated me, and I found myself wishing that Barnes had chosen a tighter structure.

Bottomline: Arthur and George has all the makings of a truly great novel – part L’Etranger, part In Cold Blood, part Perry Mason, part The Ambassadors. The coming together of these different strains is an awkward one, though, and in trying to combine them Barnes ends up writing a book that though interesting, reads more like an average Atwood novel, than a true classic.

[1] In the interests of full disclosure, and at the risk of being pilloried, I should say that I’ve never much cared for Arthur Conan Doyle’s writing in general – the Sherlock Holmes stories in general leave me cold, in much the same way as Superman comics, because I don’t see the point of watching someone with virtually superhuman powers of detection solve cases. My definition of good detective fiction is more Agatha Christie – I like stories where the author plays fair and all the clues necessary to solve the mystery are included in the story, so you can either figure out who the murderer is or kick yourself afterwards for not having seen it. With Holmes you almost never get that – no one but Holmes could solve the mysteries he solves (usually because no one else can tell with a glance which of the 400 different varieties of top-soil found in Northern Ireland can be seen on the culprits boots), whereas in theory, everyone could have figured out what Miss Marple figured out, if only they’d thought about it the right way. The fact that I’ve never been impressed with Doyle much may be one of the reasons the book doesn’t enchant me enough.

Entrans-ed Friday, Jan 20 2006 

Transamerica

I am on a lonely road and I am traveling
Traveling, traveling, traveling
Looking for something, what can it be
Oh I hate you some, I hate you some
I love you some
Oh I love you when I forget about me
I want to be strong I want to laugh along
I want to belong to the living
Alive, alive, I want to get up and jive
I want to wreck my stockings in some juke box dive
Do you want – do you want – do you want
To dance with me baby
Do you want to take a chance
On maybe finding some sweet romance with me baby
Well, come on

I am on a lonely road and I am traveling
Looking for the key to set me free
Oh the jealousy, the greed is the unraveling
It’s the unraveling
And it undoes all the joy that could be
I want to have fun, I want to shine like the sun
I want to be the one that you want to see
I want to knit you a sweater
Want to write you a love letter
I want to make you feel better
I want to make you feel free
Hmm, hmm, hmm, hmm,
Want to make you feel free
I want to make you feel free

– Joni Mitchell, ‘All I Want’

Let me put it this way. If come Oscar night Felicity Huffman does not walk away with that little gold statue for her performance in Transamerica, then one can safely conclude that every single member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is as blind as a bat.

Not that Transamerica is by any means a profound or great film – it’s a simple, lightweight movie about parents and children and the forging of new relationships – in many ways a bitter-sweet standard – a film much closer in spirit to, say, Mrs. Doubtfire than to Boys Don’t Cry.

And that is precisely the point. As a movie about gender identity, Transamerica is the precise antidote to Brokeback Mountain (see my review here), the comic foil to that movie’s tragic angst. Director and Screenwriter Duncan Tucker’s contribution here is that he does not shy away from making his main character, a transexual named Bree Osbourne as confused, as ridiculous as incapable of dealing with life’s great challenges as the rest of us, and in doing so makes here lovably, endearingly human. Transamerica is not a film about gender identity – it is a film about an amusingly uptight and somewhat ditsy woman who just happens to be, technically, a man. As Bree struggles to cope with the disapproval of her mother and tries desperately to establish a meaningful relationship with her newfound son, her nervousness and vulnerability is no different from that of any grown up woman in crisis.

The real marvel of the movie, though, is clearly Huffman herself. Huffman doesn’t just pull off a man’s role here, she pulls off the role of a man who wants to be (and is, in all ways except biologically) a woman. And then she makes you fall half in love with that woman. This is mesmerising to watch, a performance of genius – one that combines tenacity and deep emotional courage (unlike the heroes in Brokeback Mountain, Bree is not conflicted about her identity – she is very clear that she is a woman, her only regret is that other people seem to have a problem understanding this) with silliness, finicky-ness and fallability. It’s a raw-edged performance, delivered at a shrill pitch of near hysteria through which darker pools of quiet desperation show through. When she lets her guard down, and you see the roughness hidden behind the make up, Bree Osbourne is convincing as neither a man nor a woman – but it is precisely in those moments that she is must deeply, unutterably convincing as a person.

Howard’s New Beginning Monday, Jan 16 2006 

Zadie Smith’s On Beauty

“Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer.”

– E.M. Forster, Howard’s End

I hate Zadie Smith. It just isn’t fair that any one person can be that young, that talented, that succesful AND that good-looking. She could at least have had the decency to be a suitably struggling writer, one that you have to ‘discover’ and try and convince your friends to read, instead of being someone the whole world and their multi-cultural step-aunt has already read.

So. In the true Howard Belsey spirit, let me say that On Beauty is not a work of genius. It is a very good book, and a thoroughly enjoyable one, but it falls just a little short of greatness, largely, I suspect, because I can’t help comparing it to Howard’s End, and it suffers in the comparison. Many of the more peripheral characters here seem incompletely worked out, so that their motives and personalities remain obscure and under-articulated. And for all the hype about how the book is a brilliant take on academic life, many of the gags about academia seemed too easy. Certainly, Smith is gloriously funny and spot-on accurate in parts, but her overall view of academia seems a little over-the-top to me, a little too other-worldly. Surely academics are capable of being a little more practical, a little more self-searching than Smith makes them out to be. (In all fairness, I have to say that I’m at least a little in denial here – novels about uptight academics who disapprove of everything on general principle hit a little too close to home for comfort).

Very briefly, On Beauty is a novel about Howard Belsey, a middle-aged academic whose life work is to demythologise Rembrandt, and whose guiding tenet in life is that nothing is great or sacred, his warm and loving wife, Kiki and their three children – Jerome, a sensitive and artistic young man, a born again Christian; Zora, an ambitious and driven young woman and Levi, a teenager stifled by his priviliged background and trying to find a new identity for himself by tapping into ghetto culture. Search for identity, is, in fact, the central theme of the novel – as each of the key protagonists try to define who they are and what they believe in / stand for. In one particularly brilliant moment of the book, Kiki Belsey’s new friend remarks: “I don’t ask myself what did I live for…that is a man’s question. I ask whom did I live for.” It’s this search for what / who one lives for that is at the heart of the book, much as it was in Howard’s End.

Smith tries to take the implications of this search up a notch by making the bulk of her characters African-American, thus bringing the question of racial identity into the forefront of the novel. It’s not clear to me that this adds much to the plot though, except that it serves to emphasise that people are pretty much the same whatever the pigmentation of their skin, and that to think racially is to miss an infinity of finer nuances hidden beneath the broad brush of colour. If there is a larger or more precise message about racial identity in the book, it is one that is lost on me.

Where Smith really comes into her own here is in portraying the interactions among the Belsey family. The dynamic between Kiki and Howard (who is cheating on her), the interaction between Kiki and her children, the one brilliant scene between Howard and his dad – these are for me, the best parts of the book, brimming with both a precision of expression and a profound intution about human relationships, creating scenes that are truly bitter-sweet in their comic intimacy. It is in these little tete-a-tetes that Smith really shines as a writer, and it’s this that makes On Beauty a book well worth reading.

The other big achievement of the book is one that Smith frankly borrows from Forster, though doing it full justice. Howard’s End is a book about the ways in which people cut themselves off from the reality of their feelings, using intellectual pursuits and social conventions to insulate themselves from the raw business of living, and ending up trapped in a growing sense of isolation. In Forster’s novel, the first glimmerings of this trend are only just beginning to being seen, in Smith these tendencies have ossified and isolation, rather than being a growing threat is now a reality to be taken for granted. Belsey’s tragedy is not that he chooses to use his intellectual pretensions to cover up his own insecurities, ridiculing the truths it would destroy him to acknowledge, Belsey’s tragedy is that he is almost smart enough to pull this off. Belsey’s way of asserting his own self is to deny everyone else’s, and as the novel progresses these defenses of his are proven weak, and he is forced to admit that there is, in fact, beauty in the world that cannot be rationalised or explained away. Cut through all the symbolism, all the academic commentary, all the critical clutter, and what you are left with is the pure, undeniable beauty of Rembrandt, and it is these deep truths that we must base our lives on. We do not have to invent being human, we have only to celebrate it.

This recognition is also Forster’s, except that Forster is careful to join the prose and the passion, the sense and the sensibility. The flip-side of Howard’s hyper-intellectualism is the unexamined life, a life where feeling becomes opinion, emotion becomes moral imperative and self-interest can always be justified. This is where the Kipps family should have come in – with Monty Kipps, Belsey’s opponent in all things becoming the embodiment of the man who is closed to reason except as a tool to justify his own acts – but Smith never quite manages to give the Kipps family the emphasis it deserves. Carlene Kipps puts in a brief but glorious cameo, but the other members of the Kipps family – Monty, Victoria – while playing a critical role in the plot, never quite come alive as characters in their own right, remaining mere agents in the Belsey’s journey to self-discovery. This leaves the book feeling fairly lop-sided. The fact that the Belsey’s are so overwhelmingly the focus of the book may reflect Smith’s own natural biases, as well as those of her readers, but it would be too easy, if one were to step outside the finely nuanced web that Smith weaves, to see this as the story of the come-uppance awaiting liberal intellectuals, and that, one hopes, is entirely not the point.

Bottomline: There is a point in On Beauty where Kiki observes that as the years pass their family stories become more stylised, more beautiful, but less true. As a re-telling of Howard’s End, On Beauty is elaborate and finely worked, rich in detail, much funnier and considerably more up-to-date. But it lacks, for me, the urgency of the original, the directness of its engagement, the classical elegance of its prose (just compare the description of Mozart’s Requiem in On Beauty to the corresponding concert scene in Howard’s End – Chapter 5 – and you’ll see what I mean). If you haven’t read Howard’s End, go read that first – it’s a much sublimer book; if you have read it, On Beauty is about the most pleasurable ways of re-discovering it that I can think of.

P.S. I should say that it’s been a while since I read Howard’s End – so that my memory of it is a little hazy, and much of what I say here may be little more than nostalgia.

Two Ordinary Lives Wednesday, Jan 11 2006 

Vikram Seth’s Two Lives

“A narcissism of small differences”

– Sigmund Freud

I’ve never been able to make up my mind about Seth. On the one hand, The Golden Gate remains one of the most stunning books I’ve ever read, and there were passages in An Equal Music that moved me almost to tears. On the other hand, I’ve never really been able to whip up much enthusiasm for his poetry (with the exception of a few notable poems) and I found A Suitable Boy fairly average. So that when someone asks me if I like Seth, I find myself hesitating, wanting to say yes but not quite sure how I really feel.

His latest book, Two Lives, only serves to deepen that ambivalence. If this had been a great book, I could finally have cast off my doubts about Seth; instead, it is a deeply disappointing work, one that I hesitate to criticise only because this is Seth, and I am reluctant to trade betrayal for betrayal.

Two Lives is non-fiction – it is the true story of Seth’s grand-uncle Shanti Seth and his German wife Henny. While the book is ostensibly the story of their lives, the bulk of it is concerned with the period between 1935 and 1950, when the two young people, forced to leave Germany because of Nazi oppression, find their lives shattered by the engines of history – Henny losing her family to the Holocaust, Shanti losing his right arm to a german shell. Using interviews with Shanti and Henny’s old correspondence, Seth skilfully re-imagines their lives in these troubled years, going on to explore the relationship that developed between these two people, both in their own way survivors. This story, which takes up Sections 2,3 and 4 of the book is inserted between the parentheses of Sections 1 and 5, which deal with Seth’s own relationship with these two relatives, and especially with the last years of Shanti Seth.

It must be said that the middle sections at least, make for an interesting read. Seth is a talented writer, a skilled story teller, and in his capable hands the characters of the two main protagonists come vividly alive, taking on a kind of familiarity – as though Henny and Shanti were people we ourselves knew, albeit in different avatars. The third section in particular, with Henny’s recovered correspondence as its key source, offers a fascinating look into a relatively less explored aspect of the Holocaust – the plight of the survivors, who having lost family and homes to the Nazi oppression, must now try to re-establish ties with their old friends (some of whom, they suspect, may have been supportive of the Nazis) and re-invent their own identities. This was easily my favourite section of the book.

Yet even here Seth does not get it quite right. For one thing, he spends, in my opinion, entirely too much time talking about the Holocaust in general. While parts of this are arguably critical if the book is not to seem incomplete – yet there is very little that Seth says that is new or insightful here (or at least so it seemed to me) . That the Holocaust must be remembered if it is not to be relived is a tenet that I entirely support, but there are times when Seth writes as though he were the first writer to even think about describing the horrors of this period, whereas the truth is that there are many, many books that do a far better job (either through fiction or through biographical accounts) of bringing the abominations of the Nazi regime to life (just read Maus for instance).

A second problem in this section is with the source material. While Seth is lucky to have found, after Henny’s death, a whole stack of her correspondence, thus making an account of her life possible, he is clearly handicapped by not being able to interview her or get a more targeted or nuanced understanding of her life. This means that the account that finally emerges feels haphazard and incomplete – and you are left with the sense that Henny ultimately eludes Seth, so that her letters, though certainly contextually relevant, are only peripheral to who she really is.

A third problem is with the fact that Seth seems too close to the material. This means that he often sounds less than objective, heaping praise upon praise on his beloved relatives. Such devotion is touching in a grand-nephew, but suspicious in a researcher. It also means that Seth feels justified in playing a large role in the book, so that in the middle of what is purportedly Shanti and Henny’s story, we have long excursions that deal with Seth himself – his trip to Jerusalem, his sudden aversion to the German language – all of which strike a false note.

Despite these failings, and a more general tendency to ramble on Seth’s part, the middle section manages to hold one’s interest, showing us, through the lives of these two fairly ordinary people, the fate of millions just like them, and the larger political, economic and social context of their time. These sections are by no means brilliant, but as Seth himself puts it, “What is perfect? In a world with so much suffering, isolation and indifference, it is cause for gratitude if something is sufficiently good”. And sufficiently good these sections undoubtably are.

Beyond a point however (somewhere around the beginning of the fifth section) Seth’s book slips from being plain yet elegant to being frankly tedious. Perhaps Seth is trying to mirror the disillusionment he finally felt with his Uncle Shanti in his last years, but if so, he is doing too good a job. The trouble is that by this stage Seth’s novel has become entirely self-obsessed – there are no broader themes to be explored here, instead we are plunged into a protracted nostalgia trip, spiced with liberal doses of increasingly petty family politics. Why did Uncle Shanti become a bitter recluse as the years passed? The answer that Seth provides is cogent and I’m certain will be of considerable interest to the Seth family, but it is entirely presumptuous to think that anyone else shall care. In fact, it is my opinion that this would have been a much better book if Seth had completely erased his own presence from it, and allowed the two lives of the title to speak for themselves, instead of constantly insisting on his own relationship with them.

Bottomline: Two Lives is a mildly pleasant read about two mildly pleasant people leading their mildly pleasant lives in some wildly unpleasant times. It is a book that is almost certainly worth reading, but may not, in fact, be worth finishing. And coming from Seth, who we know is capable of much greater, it is, undoubtably, a let-down.

Overdose Monday, Jan 2 2006 

Salman Rushdie’s Shalimar the Clown

You can’t have too much of a good thing, the adage goes. Rushdie’s latest novel, Shalimar the Clown [1] is strong evidence that maybe, just maybe, you can.

We all know Rushdie is a writer of prodigious talent. His gifts are many: an incredible ear for dialogue, an unequalled talent for allegory, a fertile and dramatic imagination, a keen, living wit, a mastery of magic realism and an uncanny ability to write deft, sizzling, over-the-top prose. Where these gifts come together (as they did in Midnight’s Children, as they did in Shame) the effect is, for want of a better word, devastating. It’s like being strapped to giant firecracker and sent whooshing into a stratosphere of delight to explode in a million pieces. No other writer still living can write the way Rushdie, at his best, does.

These unique gifts of his are all on display in Shalimar the Clown and there are many, many parts of the book where Rushdie is at his familiar best – exhilarating descriptions of the characters that make up the tiny Kashmiri hamlet of Pachigam; the introduction of an iron mullah, a religious zealot made up of spare parts; the story of Max Ophuls, the young French Resistance fighter – all this is vintage Rushdie. That Shalimar the Clown is in many ways a return to form following the indifferent Ground Beneath her Feet and the disastrous Fury is undeniable, but it’s far from being a complete return to form. Shalimar the Clown reads like the work of a man possessed by the demons of his own talent, a man trying simply to dump all his inspiration straight on to the page, without taking the trouble to fit it together – as though Rushdie had simply opened up his bag of goodies and dumped them carelessly at our feet. There is a sloppiness here, a sense of neglect, and it makes Shalimar the Clown an ultimately unconvincing book.

Take an example – early on in the book, as Boonyi, a young village girl, plans a midnight tryst with her to be lover, Noman, she thinks about the story of Sita being abducted by Ravana. Her interpretation of this episode from the Ramayana is that Sita went out to meet Ravana because she recognised that desire, in the shape of Ravana, would always be out there waiting, and it was better to face him and get it over with than to try to hide from him in vain. This is a fascinating take on the old story, but in the context of the larger plot at this point it feels phony, tacked on, as if Rushdie had put the thought into Boonyi’s head more because he wanted to say it himself, even though it didn’t really belong there.

This is not to say that Shalimar the Clown is not a good book. Rushdie, even when disappointing, is a better than average writer, and Shalimar the Clown is one of those books that, if it had been written by pretty much anyone else, would have been hailed as a major achievement – it’s only in comparison to Rushdie himself that it suffers. The example above notwithstanding, most of the ‘Boonyi’ section of the book is superbly written, as is the first half of the ‘Max’ section. Rushdie’s greatest gift – his talent as a myth maker – is alive and well, and the stories in these sections with their quirky, nuanced characters, their evocation of place and time, their almost poetic mixing of personal made allegorical, hums with the feel of legend.

It’s only as the story continues, grows darker, that the internal contradictions of the book (which in some sense are metaphors for the contradictions of the world Rushdie is trying to describe) begin to tear Rushdie’s genius apart. Much of the latter half of the book seems too heavily laid on – the seriousness of the plot and the characters weighing down the lightness of Rushdie’s style. At their best, Rushdie’s novels are fantasies – works of desperate lightness where the deftness of Rushdie’s writing lifts even the seriousness of the events he describes into a magical twilight where they become reflections of reality without becoming reality themselves (remember the mercurochrome of Jallianwala Bagh?) . In Shalimar the Clown the weight of his story proves too much for Rushdie, and the fact that he situates his characters in the specific, in the here and now, makes his subsequent fantasies about them seem foolish and false. The second half of this book deserves a starker realism – one that Rushdie does not manage to provide.

Two things keep Shalimar the Clown from being as good a book as it could be. First, it is a desperately self-conscious novel. This is not entirely a bad thing. Perhaps the neatest trick in the whole book is the central conceit: the fact that killing of Max Ophuls (the event that the book starts with) which may initially seem like a political matter is actually driven by a personal vendetta, though of course, the personal vendetta itself is an allegory for a larger political message. Only Rushdie could pull off so elaborate and ironic a switchback.

The trouble is that again and again in the book you have the sense of Rushdie trying to be, well, Rushdie – metaphors and connections forced onto the plot even though they don’t really seem to fit; long, glowing descriptions given where a few simple words would have been so much more effective. The end result is a novel that is a stunning read from page to page, but that comes across as being ultimately overdone. It’s all very well for one or two characters in a book to be possessed of the gift of second sight, for example, but when every major character in the book seems capable of prophecy, you start to wonder if Rushdie isn’t trying too hard.

The second, though related, problem with the book is that Rushdie is trying to say a little too much with it. One of his recurrent themes through the book is that ‘everywhere has become like everywhere else’. This feels more like a cheap PR trick than a serious point of view – and it leads Rushdie down some ludicrously wrong paths. At one point in the book he actually compares the rioting in LA to the problem in Kashmir, a comparison entirely unworthy of someone who, if the rest of the book is to be taken as evidence, has a fairly nuanced and objective understanding of the Kashmir issue. Decades of foreign-sponsored militant activity and state-backed military atrocity is hardly the same thing as a one-off bout of rioting. This central claim of Rushdie’s novel – that acts of violence in one place are mirrors of acts of violence in another – is, in my opinion, a misleading and dangerous one. Certainly there are similarities between terrorists groups across the world, but it is the differences that I feel we need to pay attention to. To assume that we can understand the terrorist ‘psyche’ by understanding the story of one terrorist movement in one place is to lose sight of the specificity of the issues underlying each militant organisation, and the history of support and opposition that have gone to the making of such violence. To capture them all in one broad stroke may be a legitimate tactic for the kind of expressionist fiction that Rushdie is writing, but it is hardly good politics.

Bottomline: Shalimar the Clown is a highly rewarding read, if in many ways a flawed one. It is a disappointing book simply because there is so much in it that is superb, so much in it that is classic Rushdie. If one of the goals of literature is to be a mirror to the times it is written in, then this is a service Rushdie is performing admirably, because the crisis in his writing so perfectly reflects the crisis of the world’s conscience, of the world’s understanding of itself. In Fury, this crisis manifested itself in an almost uncompromising darkness, an overwhelming sense of disquiet. In Shalimar the Clown, we see the weight lifting, we see the struggle of a writer trying to regain the voice he once had, but the darkness is still present and co-exists awkwardly with the magic.

Towards the end of the novel, Max Ophuls’ daughter, India, finds love in an unexpected place, is shown an Eden that she may have a chance to return to. Before she makes the journey back, however, she must slay her father’s killer, the demon who continues to torment her. It is only when the past has been laid to rest that the future can begin. We can only hope that Rushdie can find the means and the strength to kill his own demons, so that he may return to us the writer we remember and love, and the world may be whole again.

[1] Yes, I finally read it.