Wednesday, January 26, 2011

JLF: The Old Woman and The Cats, read by JM Coetzee

“You have held an Indian audience silent for over forty five minutes…”

Of all the discussions, debates and readings at the festival, this was my favourite, because it was such a pure reading. Coetzee offered only a brief introduction, took no questions; this was not the usual ten-minute excerpt, either.
Only poets read a complete piece of work these days, and sometimes playwrights. The fiction author must read in excerpts, offering short takes that s/he hopes will be enough to draw you, the reader, into the rest of the work. To have a complete short story, read by an author like Coetzee, is a gift.

After he read, I was thinking about the unequal relationship between readers and auhors. Seated across the famously silent Coetzee at a dinner hosted by Random House the previous day, I had little to say to him: the author has no time for small talk, and doesn’t like discussing his books, which set certain limits on the conversation. We spoke in brief spurts about vegetarian Indian cuisines, about cats; Neel Mukherjee and he discussed the Naxal movement in India, and then we all returned to our shining thalis of gatte ki subzi and kair sangri.

Aside from my own social shyness, I seldom want to talk to the writers whose work has meant the most to me, because that conversation might be both too personal—the year Waiting For Barbarians changed my life, the year Disgrace changed my thinking—and superfluous, because their works gave me as a reader everything I needed. There are writers you read in one voracious gulp, discovering all their books, and obsessively reading everything, every last short story, every out-take and interview, over the course of two, three years—that was how I’d read Garcia Marquez and Tagore.
Coetzee was, for me, the other kind of writer: you discover their writing in your teens, and then you follow them as the books come out, each new book defining and changing a key part of your twenties and thirties. Coetzee had been my window into understanding violence and estrangement and the remoteness of the human heart, and then later, he became perhaps the only twentieth century writer to include animals into his view of the world—not as characters, but as the co-inhabitants of a world we think of as “peopled”, as silent and often helpless sharers in the actions of humankind.

Here is Coetzee, reading one of his Lessons. The writer Neel Mukherjee explained to me that Coetzee’s Lessons were not limited to Elizabeth Costello, but his preferred way of combining the essay with fiction. This lesson is about cats, and why they don’t have faces; about strays of all kinds, and children, and the relationship between parent and child, about estrangement and, perhaps, love. You must imagine him reading this on the vast, crowded lawns of the Diggi Palace in Jaipur, the afternoon sun bright on our faces, the humans silent and rapt, and only the green parrots punctuating Coetzee’s voice with their swift squawks.

Link: The Old Woman and The Cats, read by Coetzee.

JLF: writers, voices of

Martin Amis on writing about sex:

“It’s impossible to write autobiographically about sex. What voice can you use: ‘Bravo, I took her again in the morning?’”

and on writing:

“To accuse a novelist of egotism is like accusing a boxer of violence.”
“But writing is not a collaborative art. A writer comes most alive when they are alone.”
“If life is a foot, fiction is a shoe.”

Junot Diaz in an earlier interview on writing for applause:

“And I spent ten years writing Oscar Wao, and I definitely didn’t spend the ten years being like, “I’m amazing! This has taken ten years, because this much genius requires a decade!” [laughter] I spent the whole time, you know, fucked up, unhappy, really miserable and convinced that I’d ruined the whole thing, and all the stuff you get when you spend a really long time lost in the desert. I think more than anything, my basic lesson as an artist has been humility. So when I get a bunch of stuff, like “Do you want to come to this thing, do you want to come to that thing?” I say to myself “Do I want to go to this because I want applause? Do I want applause to make up for the fact that my mommy never held me enough? Or is this something where I feel I can be of service, is this an event where I can be of service?” That’s the way I choose.”

And at the JLF on applause:

“Most books look for applause, a reinforcement of current day ideas. Books are a work of art. They should look to add something, not seek applause. Otherwise it is the society asking us to do the monkey dance so that they can clap. And sadly most seem to be dancing.”

Richard Ford on reading:

"I just read. I don't work with such distinctions of culture. When I read an Indian novel in English, I think I am reading a novel. I don't think that I have to put on my Indian hat, because this is going to be a book by Indians about Indians. When I read, I try to make sense of the work in terms of a system of values that I understand. The idea is to be comfortable with things that I don't understand.”

Nam Le on being marginalized:

"One thing I like about the literary world, there are enough hurt feelings to go around. I imagine that even as we speak, there is a white, male, middle-aged writer sitting in Brooklyn complaining about being sidelined by foreign exotica."

Orhan Pamuk on “Turkish love”:

"When I write about love, the critics in the US and Britain say that this Turkish writer writes very interesting things about Turkish love. Why can''t love be general? I am always resentful and angry of this attempt to narrow me and my capacity to experience this humanity. When non-Western authors express this humanity through their work their humanity is reduced to their nation''s humanity.”
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