Posts Tagged ‘writing history’

I’m making my way back to book blogging by linking to my review of Empires of the Indus on the Lonely Planet website. Do read!


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Cover of 'The History Boys'Sometime in the 1980s, in a middle-of-the-road state school in England, a group of boys take their O Levels and achieve such good results that the inevitable beckons — they could apply to any university in the land, but it is deemed desirable that they try for Oxford and Cambridge. Alan Bennett’s play, The History Boys, evokes this betwixt-and-between period in their lives, when, flush with success, they must prepare for their futures — but what are we to see as the most important aspect of their futures? To Hector, a teacher of studied eccentricity, whose classes embrace everything from French lessons (situation: visit to a brothel), to memorising scenes from movies, to having poetry off “by heart”, the future is something that will make poetry valuable to the boys. To Mrs Lintott, a woman with a solidly academic approach, the future is when the depth of their knowledge of history and their ability to discuss historical events coherently will be tested. But to Irwin, a new teacher, recruited by the headmaster to add a bit of “polish” to his boys before they make the grand attempt at entering Oxbridge, the future will be dependent on presentation — on how much dash and verve and originality they can show, never mind solidity or anything that might be thought of, by common consensus, as reasonable.

So this is a play about the boys and their teachers, but it is no Dead Poets’ Society or Mr Holland’s Opus or any of those tales that are about teachers that inspire and students that learn. Yes, there are teachers here that inspire, but the beauty of Bennett’s play is that he isn’t content to stick to this accepted power relation between teacher and taught; what he gives us instead is a play rich with ambiguity, with students who are far from being children and are sometimes more powerful as adults than their teachers, and teachers who aren’t sacred idols but flawed instead, human beings seeking out some sort of affirmation and only sometimes getting it. These are students old enough to pass judgement on their teachers, as if they were their peers — and also old enough to sometimes refrain from passing judgement.

The key point of the play is the process of preparation for the Oxbridge entrance and the different views to this taken by each of the teachers, but it is their discussion of how to write history that imprints itself on the mind, fraught as it is with various ideas of ethics, philosophy, story-telling, logic, and understanding why human beings do what they do. Mrs Lintott is conservative, reasonable; Hector empathetic and poetic; Irwin ruthless in the pursuit of detachment and originality. In their discussion of writing history, each is exactly as in their classrooms otherwise. Bennett never really favours one over the others; what we get is a sense of how these approaches clash and combine in the boys’ listening and their own attempts at writing history and making connections between what has happened in the past — connections that sometimes match up to and even surpass those their teachers are capable of making.

Because these are intelligent boys and their teachers are not always more intelligent. Crucial to the play is the fact that Hector, beloved by the boys and deeply opposed to the sort of instrumentality of education that Irwin assumes, has a penchant for giving the boys lifts on his motorbike and feeling them up while he does so. This is tolerated by the boys, who seem completely aware of how to handle it, exasperating and intrusive as it may be, but when the headmaster finds out about it, he immediately takes on the role of protector, asking Hector to resign. It is another matter that for him, this is an excuse, something he can grasp at, for getting rid of Hector, whose teaching style he finds problematic.

And then there is  handsome, sharp-witted, arrogant Dakin, who the shy, gay, Jewish boy Posner is in love with, who carries on an affair with the headmaster’s secretary and is fascinated with Irwin. But Irwin himself is seeking a sort of affirmation — he isn’t telling the truth about being at Cambridge, and shies away from Dakin’s pointed focus on him, until at last, Dakin is not only using Irwin’s argumentative tricks better than Irwin himself, but also managing to fascinate the new teacher in return.

I’ve read reviews of the film version that took issue with the variety of homosexual attractions allowed to thread through the play. Big deal. If they were heterosexual relationships, nobody would complain about their existence; they’d become perhaps a ‘natural expression of burgeoning sexuality’. I think they’re gently handled, and if the boys are a trifle more accepting that we might expect from a bunch of unsophisticated teenagers, that is only a problem for a text that takes itself very literally, that aims at reproducing reality. I doubt that such reproduction is Bennett’s motive at all and looking at the play as such is taking a reductionist view of a fine piece of writing.

This isn’t, in other words, simply a play about learning lessons for life, though it actually takes the accepted structure of such a tale and manages to subvert it most thoroughly. By the end, we know what shape the future of each of the boys has taken. And here, again, Bennett gives us the unexpected, with more questions about what the boys’ education really did for them. The last lines of the play are “Pass it on boys. That’s the game I wanted you to learn. Pass it on” — almost the closing of a play about learning from the previous generation and passing on this edification to the next. But this play isn’t that, and it is up to the reader or the audience to decide how much irony this conclusion has been steeped in.

Bennett’s playscript is prefaced with an essay on the background of the British schools system portrayed in the play; it makes much of the sociological context very clear and highlights some of the important questions the play brings up, about education and its forms, purposes and relationship with the life of the mind in the wider world. It’s an essay that is both informative and surprisingly moving, as Bennett recalls his own time as a boy trying out for Oxford and Cambridge and what these two universities meant to the state school boys of his generation.

And then, the play begins. Comparisons with the film version, made with a screenplay adapted from the play, are inevitable, not least because the stage cast as an ensemble reprised their roles on film. It is a good enough film, but it actually ends up being more upbeat and certain of itself than the play is, which is a problem, for the strength of Bennett’s play lies in its comfort with its own ambiguity, its willingness to desist from giving us all the answers. Reading the play, some understanding of what the literality of the filmic experience robs becomes evident; there is obviously much more room for interpretation in a playscript without clear scene changes or stage directions. The dialogue becomes as symbolic as it is realistic, the boys in my mind’s eye sitting on chairs in the darkness as a spotlight roves among them. Scenes that in the film seemed to lead nowhere, to be a lot of conversation, take on the weight of philosophical discourse on the imagined stage — and miraculously manage to carry it, while still being scenes in a classroom. This is absolutely a play to read for its dialogue. It’s keenly heard, wryly funny, and full of the echoes of classrooms we’ve all been in, writing we’ve all loved, people we’ve all known. His History boys are clever and unruly, full to different extents of the mixture of smugness and seeking that is youth.

I watched the film version well before I read the play, and I have to admit that I loved the film because I thought it was talking about the things I cherish — literature, poetry, learning what isn’t obviously useful — and because it affirmed what I thought about them. Then I read this play and found that it was about so much more. What Bennett is interested in here is the very concepts of youth and experience and education. And what he gives us at the end of the play is not clarity, not transparent, fixed understanding, but, much more fruitfully, a spur to thought.

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Of the Impressionists, Pierre-Auguste Renoir was always the one I was most comfortable with, the one whose pictures seemed as though you could live with them. Maybe this was because I had, as a child, a large-format booklet with poster-sized reproductions of many of his paintings, out of which I eventually tore The Swing to stick up on the wall of the first space I ever had to myself, in Hyderabad, and The Reader, to adorn my book cupboard at home in Bombay. I lived with the former for a year and the latter is still up, on the plywood door of the cupboard, just above where my grandmother used to sit in her chair; I pass by it every time I pass the piano and smile at it when I notice it, for even after all these years, that faded girl with the book looks as absorbed in her reading and in the painting as she did the first time I saw her. By now, she, and Renoir, have quietly settled down in that corner of the flat in which I grew up.

And, taking that feeling a little further, Renoir, My Father, a memoir/biography by French filmmaker Jean Renoir about his famous painter father, is a book I could live with; in fact, a book I will live with. It is comfortable and comforting, the sort of book I will go back to when I am miserable or lonely or exhausted, because it will calm and delight and be an example of sorts.

What strikes me most about this book is that it is testimony to one aspect of how to live well. Perhaps one of the hardest lessons we ever learn as human beings is that of how to forgive our parents for being mortal, frail, fallible, flawed—for being, in fact, no better than us, and not the perfect comfort they might have been, sometime, in our memories of the distant past. This is a book about Renoir and, to some extent, also about his son, Jean Renoir, but it is also a book about that lesson in forgiving one’s parents. And if anyone ever understood that lesson, it was Jean Renoir as he wrote this book about his father, his family, the artistic ethos that surrounded them, and the warm, loving friendships threaded through his father’s life. For, as he writes in the first person, he neither sentimentalizes nor judges his parents; all he does is give us a matter-of-fact account of them, writing with great tenderness but also frankly and honestly, taking an approach of maturity, of the sort that many do not ever seem to attain.

Jean works his way through Renoir’s life, from his childhood to his apprenticeship in a porcelain factory, painting on fine china, through art school and his meeting with Sisley, Bazille, and Monet, to the first Impressionist exhibition in 1874, on to travels in Europe and North Africa, and marriage to Aline Charigot, as the family man, to his struggle with crippling arthritis, and finally, his death. His style is anecdotal and digressive, now wandering off with a recollection of old neighbours, then coming back to a tale of Renoir and a patron, moving onto a recollection from his own childhood, then talking about Renoir’s philosophy and work, and so on. Much of the book is based on conversations he had with his father after being invalided out of the First World War with a leg wound. These are mostly supplemented by recollections from Jean himself and from Gabrielle, the Renoirs’ cousin, nanny, and a model for the artist.  The result is the sort of book you can dip into at random, picking an anecdote or homing in on a name, and then reading whatever you come across, for while this is a long biographical narrative, it is also a fragmentary one, and each fragment brings something precious with it.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Self Portrait, 1910

Jean’s discussion of Renoir’s artistic work and his process of creation and “seeing” his pictures is deeply insightful for anyone interested in Renoir, the painter. But it is his discussion of Renoir the man that has the most enduring value. All the same, make no mistake about it—Jean never puts his father entirely on a pedestal. He talks of all sorts of aspects of his father’s life, everything from his particular preoccupations with protecting children from illness and injury to his reactions when face with a painting forged to look like one of his, to even, briefly and discreetly, conjecture on his parents’ sex life. But it is the detachment and simultaneous fondness in his tone that  mark the narrative out as remarkable, as much as the wealth of detail he provides on personalities and a way of life long gone.

When I sat down to think about it, I realised that Renoir had his children quite late in life—44 when the eldest was born and nearly 60 at the birth of the youngest. Fifty-three years separated Jean and his father. As a consequence, they were young at the time of his physical deterioration and death and saw their mother, too, constrained by diabetes and respiratory issues. Who is to know what the young Jean felt about his old parents’ ill-health? But if there was any resentment, any impatience, any anger at their parents, Jean does not mention it; and considering his willingness to talk about his own foibles as a child, it seems likely that what is not mentioned never existed. Instead, there is a strong sense of acceptance of “everything that is the case”  (as Wittgenstein would have it); Jean’s telling of the tales of his father’s life is rooted in a firm memory of what was his reality, not in regret or seeking for an explanation for any errors committed by his parents.

This is, perhaps, the fruit of repeated contemplation of that memory; perhaps the creases have been smoothened out already, before this writing. But if they have indeed been done away with, it is not to produce triteness. There is nothing contrived about Jean’s writing of his father’s working through arthritic pain and stiffness, struggling to grasp the brush, sighing at his bedsores, calm in the steadiness of artistic creation that, Jean says, was shot through with a sense of rightness because it was the path Renoir knew he was made to go down. It is touching and intensely moving, a portrait of horrible degeneration of the body along with the ineffable fluidity of a mind entirely at ease with its place in the world.

Renoir, My Father is thus the biography of a remarkable man and also of his remarkable family life. Is it the truth about Renoir? Jean Renoir clearly understood that this would be the question people would ask, for his epigraph remarks on how history is just another genre—this cannot but be a book about his conception of Renoir his father. Does it even matter if this is the truth? It does not, though at the same time, there seems to be no question of it being anything but the truth. For the truth of this book goes well beyond the truth of biographical detail. What it carries is the truth of a good life lived and the love of a son for his father, as a human being above all else.

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Cover of 'The Miracle Game'Sitting down to respond to Josef Skvorecky’s The Miracle Game, less than twenty-four hours after I finished reading it, I already feel that I have to refer to notes. And I know even notes won’t help me to explain that elusive point, exactly what this book is about, because it’s a behemoth of a comic opera; any plot summary seems to leave out as much as it puts in.

The fact is, this isn’t precisely a book constructed around a severely methodical plot. It’s a tough read–and a completely engrossing one–because it takes as its fulcrum one person’s experience and memory, and then pivots and pirouettes around that with one scene and event after another, leaping backwards and forwards in time, changing circumstances every few pages, and encompassing a vast selection of characters. It is readable in the sense that, even though it’s a first-person narration, it’s in clear, crisp, grammatical prose and upholds basic principles of narration. But the ordering of events is, in fact, quite near to chaos, and all the better for that.

There is a point to this narrative chaos–it reflects and evokes quite effortlessly a feeling of being completely unable to ever come entirely to grips with reality and circumstances. Just when you think you’ve got it, it twists around on itself and sends you in another direction. Whether this actually works in the author’s favor is debatable, but it did, in my opinion, for the greater part. There were bits of the book we could have done quite well without, making it a rather more manageable read, but they’re there and not about to be removed.

Which is why, I find, no plot summary I’ve read, whether the synopsis on the book cover or the publisher’s blurbs on Amazon.com, can quite do justice to this labyrinth of a story. Still, one can try. The fulcrum of the book is Danny Smiricky, a first-person narrator who is a thinly disguised version of the author Skvorecky himself. In the late 1940s, in Bohemia, Danny wakes up with a start during a service in a tiny chapel to find that he, along with Vixi, his student and lover, and a congregation that has gone into hysterics, has just witnessed a strange event–the statue of St. Joseph has moved, either by some divine power, as the villagers and their priest believe, or by the power of some human contrivance, as the Secret Police judges. For this is Communist Czechoslovakia, and Catholicism isn’t looked upon kindly, leave alone miracles apparently engineered by Catholic saints. The priest is arrested and dies while being interrogated, and this is all kept silent as far as possible. But it doesn’t get completely covered up–some twenty years later, during the Prague Spring, a journalist tries to reopen investigation into exactly what happened there, and Danny discusses the miracle with him, until they finally get to the bottom of it.

That is, ostensibly, the plot. It would be more accurate to say that this book traces the events that led to Danny being in the chapel with Vixi when the miracle takes place; and further, that another thread can be drawn through the scenes of the Prague Spring and its end, when Danny observes the counter-revolutionary zeal and reactions to events in Czechoslovakia in various settings in Europe and parts of the U.S.A., which he is visiting on a Ford Foundation grant.

Yet none of this captures what the book is about. What it is about is different people living in a Communist state, some simply going from day to day and either actiuvely trying or spectacularly failing to stay out of the headlights of the Secret Police and those in power, while others, driven by ideology, use any means to justify its ends. But Skvorecky, whose first book this was after emigrating to Canada in the late 1960s, makes a chaos of it precisely because there is no other way for people in a police state to understand the world around them and how it can suddenly crack because the ideology from which power stems is suddenly redefined or reunderstood or seems to be disrupted by somebody’s actions or words.

So this is a book about something so very serious and grave–but it is also probably one of the funniest books I’ve read recently. To the point that I laughed aloud every few pages. Skvorecky’s narration drips generous quantities of irony, is cheerfully bawdy, and even throws in some slapstick for our entertainment–and satirizes the Party and its machinations even as it warily describes them.

It’s an uncompromising narrative eye that skewers everybody and leaves them wriggling as we observe them, though it is kinder to some than to others. With the Party, it is savage, angry, but with the anger of a surgeon who knows how to wield a scalpel without too much mess; with most other characters, teachers, students, writers, most often women, it mocks, but more gently. It achieves all this mostly through fast-moving conversation and debate, sometimes reported, sometimes direct speech–Skvorecky certainly has a ear for dialogue (though I was uncomfortable with the translator’s decision to render the dialect of the Czech peasant in pure American hillbilly) and knows just how to time his characters’ speech.

Skvorecky and his wife, early in their marriage
Skvorecky and his wife, writer and actress Zdena Salivarová, in the early years of their marriage

Skvorecky’s writing of a Soviet novelist, Arashidov, drunkenly telling Morris, a British author, the long and complicated way by which his translation of the latter’s book passed beyond all Party authorization and was made available to the public; a meeting of Maoists in California, horrifyingly blind to anything beyond the framework of the ideology they espouse; schoolgirls learning by rote a description of a subject for which the government has never provided textbooks, dragging that description out time after time during an oral exam, and then trying to first feed and then drug the examiner into submission; Danny attempting to flee Soviet tanks and ferry Sylva, his friend’s wife, two children, and a suitcase full of very sexy lingerie and birth control pills to safety in Paris; a small-town girl, dazzled by the glory of a city girl’s wardrobe, trying on one outfit after another in the steamy haze of a kitchen dotted with benevolently lecherous men… the memorable scenes in this book come in plenty, as do the brief anecdotes, little one-paragraph capsules of story that could be novels in themselves, strewn carelessly on the pages.

The prose turns lyrical and yearning at times, for instance, when Danny thinks about the cult of the Virgin Mary, when he traces his route through the U.S.A., and certainly, but certainly, when he expresses his desire for a woman. It did feel sometimes that Skvorecky had too many women in this book for Danny to lust after, but then again, the narrative does cover more than twenty years, which would equate to a lot of women for a single man. Yet he undercuts this lyricism sometimes, with the acknowledgment of how the passing of a moment is final, and a memory can sometimes reveal how simply ridiculous past earnestness was. Cynical, sometimes too clever by half, yet heartfelt, with a cynicism born of genuine disappointment and disillusionment–that’s The Miracle Game. And perhaps the only end to this story is that eventually, everything, absolutely everything, can be found to be at least, as Skvorecky and Danny see it,  not uplifting, but certainly comic.

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Charles “Buddy” Bolden and his band–Standing, left to right: Jimmy Johnson (bass), Buddy Bolden (cornet), Willy Cornish (valve trombone), Willy Warner (clarinet); Seated, left to right: Brock Mumford (guitar), Frank Lewis (clarinet).

I have previously encountered the forms of Michael Ondaatje’s novel-biography, Coming Through Slaughter–in his memoir-novel, Running in the Family, a later work that employs many of the devices to be found in Slaughter. There are quick shifts in voice and perspective, sections consisting entirely of transcripts of interviews conducted, leaps in chronology, poems, and “found” print archival material–a photograph here, a newspaper story there–thrown together to tell not a story but many possible stories, the beauty being in the interplay of a plurality of voices and recordings of the past, with as much conveyed by the gaps between them as by what they say. So it wasn’t, presumably, all new–but the brilliance of Ondaatje is that it was.

Slaughter is a novel-biography; I am not sure what else to call it. It is neither fiction nor yet non-fiction. Its focus is a musician named Buddy Bolden, in early 2oth century New Orleans. Bolden is a cornet player, a barber, a collector of stories for a paper he publishes, called The Cricket, a husband, a father, a lover, a friend, a madman.

There was actually, historically, a musician named Buddy Bolden; he was acknowledged by most early jazz musicians as one of the fathers of jazz. His career came to an end when he was committed to an asylum after a fit of psychosis at the age of 30. There are no known recordings of him playing, and only one known photograph (the one posted above, which is also in Ondaatje’s book) but there are stories, many stories. Some of these have been corroborated with research and others have been found to be merely stories. Still, all of the stories apparently persist. Where the truth about Bolden separates from the legend is difficult to tell.

That ambiguity is, I suppose, ultimately the nature of history-writing, which is always a tying together of fragments of the past into a narrative that seems acceptable and plausible in the present. And that ambiguity serves as the foundation for Coming Through Slaughter. It could be called a novel, but that would be ignoring those sections of it that consist entirely of archival material and summaries of archival material. It could be called a biography, but, a little further research informed me that some of the events Ondaatje discusses are purely fictional, while others are acknowledged as the stuff of myth. I don’t know what to call it, other than novel-biography.

But then again, labelling it is not really important. What is amazing is the vastness and the density of this slim book, which is only 156 pages long. Ondaatje’s prose is so full of adrenaline that it literally throbs against the temples as it races from scene to scene. Bolden in a barbershop, shaving customers, Bolden playing the cornet, Bolden and his children, Bolden leaving his wife and disappearing for two years, Bolden having an affair, Bolden sleeping with woman after woman, Bolden slashing a man in a fight, Bolden persuading the whores of Storyville to pose for his friend, Bellocq, the strange photographer, who in actual fact left behind a vast collection of pictures methodically mutilated. And finally, Bolden at a parade, going mad.

Ondaatje’s descriptive writing is textured and coloured; it smells good sometimes and bad at other times, and it reaches out and grabs at you with rough fingers, sometimes caressing, sometimes pinching hard and leaving bruises. It has a peculiar immediacy and sensual quality that comes from sharp detailing of minute particularities, to the exclusion of the settings and landscapes to position these details in. There is an improvisatory quality here, much like the form of jazz itself–in 10 pages we can go from a conversation to a third person descriptive section to what appears to be an interview to a poem to a dream. How do you read the silences between these narrative jags, how do you put them together? Each reading is a wildly imaginative act.

We are there; we are with Bolden; he can only have lived in and through us. And he is most alive at two times–when Ondaatje writes about his cornet-playing and when he writes about his episode of psychosis. Arguably, nobody has written about playing jazz, feeling jazz as evocatively as Ondaatje does; and undeniably, Bolden’s madness shouts through every few lines, until, at the last, it is shrieking as loudly as his cornet.

If this is a history of Bolden in early jazz, it is an odd sort of one. Factually, it seems it is practically bankrupt. There are only pieces here and pieces there to make a story out of.  But Ondaatje’s sometimes self-conscious phrasing works to remind us that this, like all histories, is a story, even as it drags us right into it.

It was a music that had so little wisdom you wanted to clean nearly every note he passed… There was no control except the mood of his power…and it is for this reason it is good you never heard him play on recordings. If you never heard him play some place where the weather for instance could change the next series of notes — then you should never have heard him at all…

But there was a discipline, it was just that we didn’t understand. We thought he was formless, but I think now he was tormented by order, what was outside it. He tore apart the plot–see his music was immediately on top of his own life. Echoing. As if, when he was playing, he was lost and hunting for the right accidental notes. Listening to him was like talking to Coleman. You were both changing direction with every sentence, sometimes in the middle, using each other as a springboard through the dark. You were moving so fast it was unimportant to finish and clear everything. He would be describing something in 27 ways. There was pain and gentleness everything jammed into each number…

There are no known recordings of Bolden playing, but Jelly Roll Morton did base one of his pieces on an earlier one by Bolden. Listen to an mp3 file of Buddy Bolden’s Blues (Jelly Roll Morton).

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