Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Unfinished but not imperfect. Not by a long shot.

Go figure. For the life of me, I have not so far been able to understand why unfinished novels fascinate me. Could it be because they were works-in-progress that got interrupted by the author’s death, thus doomed to never get finished? Or, is it because, in Italo Calvino’s words, “A classic is a book which has never exhausted all it has to say to its readers.”? http://bit.ly/16NkyvQ
Here are the three unfinished works-in-progress that enthralled me, listed here in the order of their appearance in my life as a reader:  Truman Capote’s Answered Prayers; Kurt Vonnegut’s If God Were Alive Today; and, last though by no means the least, F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Last Tycoon. Curiously, all three were by writers who were besieged by alcoholism and/or substance abuse and all three are about celebrity and, in varying degrees, celebrity-bashing.
A distinguishing characteristic of Capote’s book (he called it his “posthumous novel” on the Dick Cavell show in May 1971, thirteen years prior to his death), peopled by Unspoiled (and Spoiled) Monsters, is a cavalcade of NHRN characters flitting across its terrain. NHRN ( = Not His/Her Real Name) because in Answered Prayers, Capote put into practice his belief expressed in his Playboy December 1976 interview, viz., “All literature is gossip.” He bravely – almost stoically – endured the wrath of − and ostracization by − his high-society friends for letting the skeletons tumble out of their celebrity closets by the advanced publication of excerpts from his work-in-progress. I was bemused by his trashing of celebrity and enjoyed the writing that no doubt is simply dishy. I have a feeling that being outrageous in all he did and said had by the end of his life become his chief oeuvre. This is what Capote said about himself: “I don’t know anybody who gets as much publicity as I do for doing nothing.” And, this is how he dismissed Jack Kerouac’s On The Road: “It is not writing. It is only typing.” Dorothy Parker agreed with his pronouncement. James Michener who by his own admission knew Capote “tangentially” wrote that he knew “four of the people T.C. lacerates” in Answered Prayers – which he thought was “[a] proctologist’s view of American society” but nonetheless capable of becoming “the roman à clef of my decade” – in the Proustian vein – if only Capote managed to complete it.

In If God Were Alive Today, Vonnegut too is engaged in a similar pursuit – celebrity mauling − although the characters don’t seem to be inspired by real people. The chief protagonist is a standup comic clearly off his rocker. He has been to the loony bin twice. Vonnegut’s take on politics and American values is often devastatingly cynical, occasionally hilarious and at times over-the-top bonkers especially because of Gil Berman’s overlong rants. Chances are, Vonnegut might have trimmed and polished the spiel had Death stayed its hand a little longer. In her interview in the Rumpus magazine http://bit.ly/1dKW3TV Vonnegut’s youngest daughter, Nanette, mentions her son’s opinion that Gil Berman would never have made it to the stage. It’s view worth keeping in mind as the said son is a practicing standup comic, no less. Well, well, well, summing up the world’s status in Vonnegut’s own words: “If God were alive today, he would have to be an atheist, because the excrement has hit the air-conditioning big time, big time.” http://bit.ly/15uXD9x

I read The Last Tycoon recently in its Penguin Modern Classic avatar. Fitzgerald’s close friend, Edmund Wilson, was the editor. He also wrote a brief introduction. In this incarnation, it includes the first six chapters followed by the author’s notes on the cast of characters and alternative plot development pathways. Publisher’s Weekly’s review of Matthew J Bruccoli’s critical edition of the novel  http://bit.ly/17swohl hints at it too being a roman à clef about Hollywood in the nineteen-thirties. The power struggle between MGM producer Irving Thalberg (Monroe Stahr, the chief protagonist) and MGM chief honcho Louis B Mayer (Pat Brady) presumably based on Fitzgerald’s personal observations of life in Hollywood during his sojourn there as a scriptwriter for MGM, Twentieth-Century Fox, United Artists and other studios from 1937 to 1940, was to form the core of the novel. The first six chapters in the Wilson-edited version in which the story seems to be about halfway developed barely suggests this, though. It is only when you go through the supplementary material that you begin to get a vague idea of what a rousingly powerful story it could have been had the author been able to complete it. Even in its truncated form, it is quite an absorbing read. Fitzgerald’s notes give the reader an opportunity to observe at close quarters how a master storyteller shapes his material and steers his narrative. In a review of The Last Tycoon (New York Times, 9 November 1941) http://nyti.ms/18y5lWl J Donald Adams, apparently a regular contributor, expressed his view that Fitzgerald was particularly suited to write about Hollywood “inside out” because he was a “romantic realist”. By this phrase, he implied that Fitzgerald possessed in abundance “a lively sense of the fantastic” combined with “intuitive perceptions”, in addition to an insider’s knowledge of how the system worked owing to a fairly long stay there. He also cites this observation of Peter Monro Jack, Professor and Chair of Rhetoric, University of Michigan (1927-1930): "Had his extraordinary gifts met with an early astringent criticism and a decisive set of values, he might very well have been the Proust of his generation instead of the desperate sort of Punch that he is." That, indeed, is high praise.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

One picture is worth a thousand words. A proverb made in China, no less?

Reading about Sergey Brin’s “epiphany” concerning a new language of digital communication http://nyti.ms/1a4IAGu took me to my early days in advertising. There used to be an ongoing argument between writers and art directors about the relative prominence for copy vis-à-vis the pictorial elements in print ads. “One picture is worth a thousand” used to be the favourite last word on the subject uttered by the commercial artists some of whom fancied themselves to be Gauguins, van Goghs, Cézannes and Warhols of the ad world. I must confess, at the cost of sounding like a condescending snob, that not even two or three out of a score of them had even heard the names. The writers, on the other hand, were comparatively better informed. They would at least have taken the trouble to browse through the horrendously expensive, large-format, hard-bound tomes on occidental art direction strewn about in the studio space while waiting patiently for the nose-in-the-air art directors to give them a few moments of their precious time. This apparently was also the often uttered battle cry of marketers against competitors wielding catalogues as their marketing weapon and in similar skirmishes in the US marketplace in the early 20th century. http://bit.ly/16YUXCi  This reminds me of what Ivan Turgenev wrote in Fathers and Sons (1862): “The drawing shows me at a glance what would be spread over ten pages in a book.” http://bit.ly/14XxHDk Turgenev, in case you missed it, was the “father” of the term “nihilism”. And, the just cited remark by Bazarov, the chief protagonist of Fathers and Sons who was a nihilist and a medical student, was made in connection with the geological formation of Saxon mountains – a conversation ploy he employed with his friends while feigning no interest in art. This is the right moment, folks, to hark back to Brin’s epiphany. It suddenly dawned on him that, in a digital milieu where Twitter posts are “hyper-abbreviated”, a single photograph clicked on one’s mobile phone was eloquent enough to answer a textual query – without a textual or verbal addendum.  Pictures have become text-substitutes, in short. Talk of word pictures? It’s happening here and now. So, photography is no more only for keeping a record of the past. Instead it is used to record this moment. A mobile photo messaging app for Android called Snapchat http://bit.ly/12T8Ayn lets a cellphone user shoot a picture or a video, send it to a friend and control how long it will be visible (up to 10 seconds) after which it vanishes forever as if it never existed in the first place.  Twitter’s Vine is happy with a 6-second lifespan for the visual while Facebook’s Instagram stretches it to 15 seconds. Finally, to place the matter in the larger perspective, think about what Guy-Ernest Debord wrote http://bit.ly/1a7p9Nr in The Society of the Spectacle, supposedly the blueprint for the Parisian student revolt of 1968: "The spectacle is not a collection of images, but a social relation among people, mediated by images." This was one whole year before the uprising. In the same book, he also wrote: "In societies where modern conditions of production prevail, all life presents as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation." Technology has finally made sense of his vision. Or, so it seems. 

Thursday, July 04, 2013

Spare me this day self-promotion by celebrities, Beelzebub.

Yesterday must have been my bad scare day. No, the Lord of the Flies did not intrude in my early-morning dream. I woke up much later than usual, though. Thirty past six, to be exact. Like me, the newsboy too arrived late. But that’s hardly unusual for him. As I was doing some stuff on my PC, I did not get my hands on Bombay Times, my habitual entrée to daily news read via its comic strips till well past nine forty-five or thereabouts. As (bad) luck would have it, on turning the faux front page my eyes were ambushed by a headline that said: “I apologized to Milkhaji’s wife for not having written a love song for her”. http://bit.ly/17WM5l4 Without a thought for the consequences and breaking my habit of reading nothing except the comic strips and the SMS Joke in Bombay Times, I plunged headlong into one of the most skillfully plotted pieces of celebrity self-promotion I have come across in my whole life. Were you to accept all that you read in it, you will no doubt arrive at the following conclusions:
1. Unlike other mere mortals, Prasoon Joshi was born with a silver pen – not spoon − in his mouth.
2. Despite PJ’s parents’ assiduous efforts at gathering kafal – a berry specie nearing extinction – to feed him and despite PJ’s own ability to hear the faintly murmured message from Mother Nature about the coming extinction, poor kafal went the way of all flesh. Alas, in spite of his super hearing abilities beyond the ken of mere mortals, PJ could not save his beloved Uttarakhand in its hour of direst need when Mother Nature was shrieking at the top of her voice. I guess even super heroes have their bad hear days. What a sad PJ, sirji!
3. In the best of Bollywood and telly tradition, our hero had a widowed, white sari-wearing nani who educated herself against all odds, became first a teacher and later the school’s head honcho. With a Grade-A singer cum book author in Pahadi for a mom and a Director of Education for a dad, our hero with his exclusive nighttime access to a library in Meerut was well set to become a Grade-A jingle writer.
4. Our hero is far superior, in his own reckoning, to his erstwhile boss who he says is a patriarch. (Oh, oh! We know where this is leading to with violence against women hogging the daily headlines, don’t we?) Our hero also says that he has “no ego when it comes to accepting women as equals. Of course, our hero has magnanimously accepted his former boss’s difficulty in treating him as his equal. Needless to say, our hero confesses to being more into music and poetry than his ex-boss as also to needing his space and silence as compared to his ex-boss’s preference for being "always" surrounded by “more and more people”. So who is the better and more sensitive human being, boys and girls? Tell me, tell me.
5. In his infinite compassion for the female of the species, PJ actually said sorry to Mrs. Milkha Singh for not excluding her from a film on her husband.
6. The only reason our hero tolerates Mumbai: his idol Gulzar also lives there. He is not there for the money, folks – the filthy lucre that he gets for writing ad jingles and film songs, and, now film scripts.  
One could go on and on like this until one puked all over the page at the sheer gall of it all. Running down others is no way to prove one’s superiority as a human being. Equally, no amount of fudging with facts or playing with words no matter how poetically you do it can achieve it, either.

But celebrity can turn one’s head, I guess. Your sense of entitlement gets grossly and unhealthily enhanced. You want the world to acknowledge your greatness, your superiority every waking moment. You deserve it, damn it! If worse comes to worse, there is always the pay-as-you-go route. I’m told many publications don’t mind bending the rules these days. News mimicking ads, you see.