Sunday, March 28, 2010

march memoir madness: kaifi, obama, crisp, seth, mill

I plus parental/grandparental units spent most of this month scrambling to shift house, so book blogging became a secondary concern. Presenting an ungainly post of fly-by thoughts on all the memoir reading I've done this March [and I have no idea how, it just happened]. I hope to write more on at least a couple of these again, so maybe next time I will also be able to offer quotes, after my books have emerged like Venus from the bottom of the cardboard boxes.

#25 Kaifi and I, Shaukat Kaifi, trans. Nasreen Rehman

Imagine being married to a brilliant poet who is also handsome, also famous, also a poor and dedicated Communist who lives on a commune in Andheri, where he has one room to share with you. He makes almost no money writing his amazing poetry and spends most of his time on work for the Party, among labourers [his sympathies perfectly expressed in the immortal 'Makaan' - Sab utho, main bhi uthoon, tum bhi utho, tum bhi utho. Everyone awake: I will rise, so must you, and so must you] and in slums. You, a beauty and a wit who has spurned the elegant cosiness of your traditional upbringing in Hyderabad, have to tear up saris to make curtains, yearn quietly for doilies, and put up, not only with the city that Bombay was in the 1950s, but with being poor in the Bombay of the 1950s. You have plenty of backbone, and you have a husband who wrote the words, Uth meri jaan, mere saath hi chalna hain tujhe - arise, my love, you must walk with me today. Annoyingly paternalistic to read today? Yes, at least for me. But beautiful, nonetheless. Shaukat Kaifi, wife of Kaifi Azmi [and mother of cinema's leading lights Shabana and Baba Azmi] writes that when she heard those famous lines she was convinced that they had to be for her: that she and none other would have the right to walk beside Kaifi. She was correct. Their whirlwind courtship and romance [I have three words for you: letters. in. blood.] led to a marriage of over fifty years, and a lifelong engagement with politics, literature, and for Shaukat, acting in the theatre and the cinema, both of which had a flourishing relationship with the Progressive movement's Urdu writers that continued well into the '60s and beyond. Her touching love story with Kaifi Azmi is at the centre of this memoir, but it is also a very personal, often surprising record of some of the most radical currents of newly independent India; in Urdu writing, in Islam - particularly among Muslim women - and in the theatre of Bombay. The translation is a just and apparently scrupulous effort, although the translations of the poetry do seem to sacrifice rhythm for faithfulness. All in all, a pressing reminder to self that the resolution to learn to read Urdu must no longer be put off.

#26 Dreams From My Father, Barack Obama

I am so weary of admiring Barack Obama's BRAAAIIIINS I have no way to express it. His story is of course an eminently tellable one in broad strokes: parents! Hawaii! Indonesia! Chicago! Kenya! but it is what he does at the micro-level that is astounding. It would have been easy to write the emotional equivalent of an adventure story, I think, and for a writer of his gifts that might have been a deeply impressive read, for all we know. But this memoir is shaped by the hands of Obama the rationalist, with his matter-of-fact eloquence and his immense capacity for analysis. As much as an act of self-creation, this book is also an act of self-dissection, as it were, and the two seemingly opposed acts are bound up in each other. I can see why complaints of glibness have carried right over into critique of his presidential persona. It is rather obviously an elided, highly selective piece of writing, but that goes to serve the grand narrative of ideas that this book is about. It seems to me to be perfectly honest to that trajectory: highlighting, primarily, his experience of race and space, and then that of constructing masculinity.

The last section of the book, where he travels to Kenya to meet his father's family, is easily the most visceral of all the episodes he describes. Intensity of thought here yields some ground to intensity of feeling, and yes, alright, I cried like a nut at the obvious points. But I think my favourite section of this book is his work as a community organiser in Chicago. I think the book's significant triumph is its chronicle of the frustrations, the continually changing priorities, and the constant inspiration derived from the people, rather than the ideas that you work for. The nature of professional activism probably differs from place to place, but I think everyone interested in communities, particularly urban communities, ought to read this. It is an emotional but unsentimental description of what life on the margins can be like, and what it means to accept its truths in order to reverse them. Kaifi Azmi once told his daughter: You must accept that change may not come in your lifetime, but continue to work for it nonetheless. Obama's work subordinates this broader truth to the struggle for an achievable, quantifiable change, even if it is diminished and imperfect. A lesson well-learned on the whole, I suppose.

#27 The Naked Civil Servant, Quentin Crisp

I found this gloriously funny and often exquisite book very hard to read. Crisp's humour is Wildean in its arch frivolity and piquancy. It is perfectly possible for victims of gay-bashing to be flippant about it, and I suppose it is possible to laugh at the flippancy; I could not. Crisp's life, almost coeval with the twentieth century [he was born in 1908] was by no means easy. Born into bourgeois Englishness, never willing [or per his memoir, able] to repress his sexuality, the repercussions were constant. Crisp was pulled out of taxis and beaten, shunned by employers, rejected by the War Office for being a pervert, and subjected to countless other acts of violence and humiliation, large and small. Crisp lays the drollery on thick, and every other line is a witticism that sends himself or someone else up. But the book is not simply about mocking pain, nor is it satirical [as a friend once tells Crisp, there's never anything satirical in his work, because there's no anger]. It is a very sharp look at the inner life as well as the material condition of a certain section of London and English society over the early years of the 1900s. It is also about how both the self and a group can create and sustain an identity in the face of violent hatred. Crisp the writer would no doubt disavow the romance and sentimentality of such an idea, writing as he does from a perpetual standpoint of disengagement from the broader currents, but that hardly makes his book apolitical.

#28 Two Lives, Vikram Seth

Vikram Seth is quite demonstrably a brilliant writer. His language is musical, his subjects are fascinating, his sentiments are meet and his compassion for his characters something of a byword. I think The Golden Gate is a fantastic book and From Heaven Lake a simply lovely one. I didn't like An Equal Music, but while I have never read past the first 20 pages of A Suitable Boy [the commuter's hands are perpetually tied to the small book] I hope to do so whenever I am next unemployed, or succumb to the Kindle, or something. But since he has hopped from genre to genre with such overall success it might suggest that he would do to biography, a noble but hardly transcendental art, what spring does to the cherry trees.

He doesn't quite. Two Lives is not the work of Seth the lyricist extraordinaire but that of Seth the Ph.D candidate, and while all the tremendous good taste of language and sentiment shine through, it is a biography that goes, perhaps in keeping with the lives of his subjects, in stops and starts. It is the story of his great-uncle Shanti Behari Seth and Shanti's German wife, Henny Caro. Their long, cosy married life in England succeeded a long friendship, begun when Shanti, an Indian student of dentistry, became the Caros' lodger in 1930s Berlin. Shanti was then still a British subject, and unable to practice dentistry, moreover, under the Aryan laws of Nazi Germany. At the outbreak of war, he joined the British Army in Sudan as an officer, and had an extremely eventful career that ended with his losing his right arm on the battlefield of Monte Cassino, Italy, in 1943. The Caros - mother Ella, and daughters Lola and Helga [or Henny] - were Jewish. Henny fled Berlin just before the war began, finding shelter with friends in England. By the end of the war, she had lost most of her friends in Germany, but her family suffered the worst fate. Ella, she was to discover, died in Theresienstadt, and Lola in Buchenwald.

The story of the Caros, told largely through letters and Seth's recounting of his research into the matter, is exceptionally humanising of the unthinkable tragedy. The Caros' gentile friends also went through the crucible, and not all of them passed the test. Their letters tell a bleak story for the ones who stood up for what was right. But it is leavened, as Henny herself seems to assure herself and them, by the human decencies of friendship and loyalty - decencies that are anything but common. Henny's most steadfast friend, of course, turns out to be Shanti himself. A man who made several very long journeys to come to his unexceptionable dental practice in middle-class London, with a circle of friends who came over for dinners and bridge parties, who claimed never to have known racism in his life, and who made such a dependable husband and friend for Henny, Shanti's inner life is somewhat obscured by the absence of any copious or introspective correspondence, although it is much better documented on the whole than Henny's: distraught after her death in the late '80s, he destroyed most of her photographs and papers, and never touched her post-War correspondence. Perhaps it was also less easily recorded. Seth does a marvellous job piecing together a framework for the criss-crossing of their lives during the tumultous war decades, after which their marriage, which comes at a leisurely pace in 1951, in the absence of any tempestuous romance, is a bit anti-climactic. How Seth himself comes to know these members of his family, and how he relates to them over the years, becomes a lovely, complex thread in the narrative: the Caro-Seths never have children, and various surrogates come into their lives in complicated, not always benign ways. But after Henny's death from cancer, Shanti's own life and the threads of the book devolve into a minor cacophony: emotional turbulence clashes with the frustrations of old age, and with the distasteful if always interesting matter of wills and legacies. Here Seth's desire to take the story to its end somewhere well after Shanti's death dulls its impact considerably. I am no censor of private stories, but I do wonder why Seth felt a more circumspect end to the book might have sacrificed its honesty.

#29 Autobiography, John Stuart Mill [re-read]

Oh, John Stuart Mill. Every time I read this book I can barely think through the first two chapters except to be appalled at the superdickery of James Mill, Famous Victorian Philosopher and crazycakes economist, and little JS' father. He put JS to studying Greek at age 2 and mathematics at age 3. Yes, readers of the scintillating The Last Samurai will know how well this can be accomplished in fiction. But Mill was no Sybilla to JS' Ludo. He was an asshole with a temper who ensured that baby J, when he was finally allowed to interact with the outside world, was 'at least a quarter century ahead' of his peers, a brilliant analytical thinker and polymath who had accomplished more by the age of 20 than most academics ever do, but at what price tender modern pinkos like me can only shudder to imagine. Little Mill is extremely gracious to him, though, because amazingly he turns out to be a very nice guy - and another Famous Victorian Philosopher who is not only much less of a dick than other FVPs, but also very relevant to liberal thinkers today. He turns out to have a terrifically involved intellectual life, great friendships with other FVPs [to say nothing of people like Thomas Carlyle] and a love story with Harriet Taylor that is just waiting for Paul Bettany and Jennifer Connelly to find the right Hollywood script. [What? They acted as the Darwins! The Mill-Taylors were even cooler!] I am by no means familiar with all or even most of Mill's work, so all that detailed stuff in between about the Reviews and his work on Logic is barely of academic interest to me: but he is endlessly articulate on the subject of the life of the mind and the liberty of the individual - of every individual, including slaves in Jamaica and women everywhere, not just privileged white men - and since his mind was such a gigantic one the Autobiography is nothing short of a marvel.


  1. Madeline6:17 am

    Hi, I found your blog because I have a Google Alert for Vikram Seth. I really enjoyed these reviews, although I've only read Mill. (And superdickery is a perfect description of his father. Uuuuuugh.) The Shaukat Kaifi sounds particularly interesting, although I don't think it's in print anywhere I know.

    Thanks so much for sharing these!

  2. Thanks, Madeline! Lovely to hear from another Seth fan [and another person who has read JS Mill's Autobiography, yay]. I'm glad you enjoyed the reviews.