upamanyu chatterjee, “english, august”

englishaugustUpamanyu Chatterjee
English, August: An Indian Story
(New York Review Books, 2006; originally 1988)


I missed this book entirely when it was reissued; at some point, NYRB started releasing so many books that it was hard to keep track of them all, and I only happened to come across it in the Neilson Hays, Bangkok’s odd but necessary subscription library, while looking for reading in preparation for a vacation in Kolkata and Darjeeling. How this book turned up there is something of a mystery – their collection mostly runs to colonialist memoirs, British thrillers, and an ungodly number of books attempting to explain Thai ways and their meaning – but it was a happy discovery. My knowledge of Indian fiction – even written in English – is embarrassingly spotty, to say the least. It goes without saying that Indian fiction doesn’t tend to get a lot of coverage in the U.S.; it’s been interesting spending time in Kolkata – maybe the best city for books I’ve ever been in, certainly the best one anywhere near here – and seeing just how much interesting work is available that I know nothing about.

But this book. The plot is fairly simple: the protagonist, Agastya Sen, has just graduated from university and has been accepted into the Indian Administrative Service; as part of their training, he’s sent to a nonentity of a town called Madna where he’s to learn the ropes. Agastya – sometimes Ogu, August, or simply “English” because his Bengali name is too complicated for others to say – is a slacker who understands that the vast majority of what’s done by the bureaucracy is effectively meaningless; but he also understands that it’s impossible to change anything from inside. He spends his days shirking work, smoking pot, masturbating, listening to Keith Jarrett and Rabindranath Tagore, reading Marcus Aurelius and the Ramayana, writing in a journal, and cadging dinners off of friends and coworkers. He considers quitting, but has no real ambitions. He’s reluctantly following in the footprints of his father, who is the Governor of West Bengal; there’s the strong sense that he’s a disappointment. He completes his town in Madna and is then sent to an even smaller, non-existent town. And finally something happens: out of misguided intent, he comes into contact with the ostensible aim of the job – bettering the lives of Indians – decides to actually do something worthwhile (bring water to a town with a dry well) and inadvertently stumbles across something very different, complicating his world but bringing him to a deeper understanding of it.

There’s more going on here – Indian class and identity are clearly important, though I can’t say anything informed about them – but what’s most striking to me about this book is as a visceral depiction of work: the drudgery entailed in the majority of jobs. This is drawn from life: the first paragraph of Chatterjee’s Wikipedia page currently defines him as “an Indian civil servant who currently serves as Joint Secretary to Government of India in the Ministry of Defence” and reveals him to have gone through the IAS himself, just as Agastya Sen does. Only in the second paragraph is he a writer.

The experience of work isn’t something that’s written about particularly often. There’s a prosaic reason for this: work generally precludes writing. The sorts of work taken up by writers are certainly covered (teaching, scraping by as a freelancer, trying to write), but there’s a general absence of non-writerly jobs, which make well-written accounts all the more interesting. In American fiction, you can trace this back to “Bartleby the Scrivener,” drawn from Melville’s work at a customs-house; a large amount of Melville’s writing is based on work. Jack London’s Martin Eden is a powerful account of manual labor and what it takes out of a person; it’s not often read in the U.S., perhaps because it’s not what serious fiction is meant to be about. (A corollary: by that reading, serious fiction is done by the idle rich – Henry James, Edith Wharton – which does, more often than not, seem to be the case.) More recently, I’ve been taken with Stanley Crawford’s narratives of his life as a garlic farmer (the experience of which doesn’t seem to have made its way into his fiction) and Sergio De La Pava’s work as a public defender, which very strongly appears in A Naked Singularity. I find something useful in these accounts: work is a part of most of our lives, and it’s something that fiction can be useful in trying to understand, though more often than not it seems like something that fiction shies away from.

There’s comedy in English, August: Agastya hates his job and will go to elaborate and comical lengths to avoid doing work, and work, when he does it, seems to consist of signing endless stacks of paper while attempting not to read them. His shirking, though, is a more serious subject: he’s passing time in Madna, avoiding real life. “Real life,” however, doesn’t have a particular meaning for him: while he misses his old friends and is unhappy to be far away from them, he’s lacking in ambition. His position in the IAS does provide a clear path to security and respectability; his family connections make it clear that there’s a safety net. But deciding to want to do what he’s doing – or even to consider that as a choice – is difficult for Sen. The climax of the novel is interesting: it points to a conventional novelistic solution (he sees that the bureaucracy, for its flaws, is actually helping people) but then shies away from it. The world it depicts is more complicated than that of the novelistic arc. Sen does seem to understand that his work can be useful; however, the world is unpredictable. Sen ends this book seemingly resigned to his life in the IAS, though what he thinks is hidden to the reader.

Chatterjee’s written a sequel to this book, which appears to continue Sen’s adventures or lack thereof: I’m curious where he goes.

april 1–15, 2014

Books

Films

  • Destination Moon, directed by Irving Pichel
  • Zardoz, dir. John Boorman
  • となりのトトロ (My Neighbor Totoro), dir. Hayao Miyazaki
  • Dallas Buyers Club, dir. Jean-Marc Vallée

Exhibits

  • Indian Museum, Kolkata
  • “Unravelling a Modern Master: The Art of Lali Mohan Sen (1898–1954),” Victoria Memorial Hall, Kolkata
  • Rabindranath Tagore House, Kolkata
  • Academy of Fine Arts, Kolkata
  • Marble Palace, Kolkata
  • Himalayan Mountaineering Institute, Darjeeling

james mccourt, “lasting city”

lastingmech.inddJames McCourt
Lasting City: The Anatomy of Nostalgia
(Liveright, 2014)

Reading Infinite Jest when I was eighteen was a revelatory experience, in part because it was the first time that I’d read a book that took place in a geography that I could recognize. Wallace’s Boston overlapped with my Boston; not perfectly, but enough. That this would have seemed surprising was the result of growing up in a town that no one would ever bother to describe: realizing that the world in a book could overlap with the world outside of a book took a while. This isn’t a new discovery – this is basically what powers the plot in the second half of Don Quixote – but it is something that each reader must negotiate individually. It’s something that I haven’t fully made my peace with yet: certainly on some level I still tend to think less of fiction that draws too much on the real world. In part this might be because of early experiences with books that seemed more powerful because they had no connection with the world in which I lived: one ascribes power to imagined originality.

And this impulse extends outside of the world of fiction: fresh out of college, I found myself naively incredulous that a critic was writing about artists that he’d been friends with before their deaths. How, I wondered, could one possibly be objective in such a situation? My ideal critic would have been outside of the world of artists entirely. (This would have been personally possible, I’ll note, if I’d stayed in the rural Midwest, but even at that point I’d made my choice; perhaps I was second-guessing myself.) I’m not saying that personality-based criticism is the correct route to take: writing, criticism or not, that includes the author is almost always worse than criticism that rigorously excludes the first person. Metafiction is a similar example: it’s almost always terrible. But every once in a while it works and it’s terrific.

Which brings me to James McCourt and Lasting City, a memoir written by someone I’ve met about a city that I’ve left. It’s a strange book, not least because of how similar it is to his fiction which depicts worlds with a thoroughness that leads one to suspect that it might be history with the names changed. There’s a James McCourt here, and a family around him whose existence seems certain, but one wonders about some of the narrator’s interlocutors, too perfect to be true. McCourt is a storyteller first and foremost; and the question of fact or fiction is secondary to whether the story works.

An element of fiction is obvious in this, as in any memoir: McCourt wasn’t taking transcripts of conversations when he was a kid. After reading his fiction, it’s impossible not to hear the recounted conversations as sounding like James McCourt dialogue. But perhaps the opposite is true? McCourt explains:

The falsity (and the art) in all such reminiscence lies in the arrangement for the reader of a sequence of memories, keying such a sequence into the more-or-less attested and authenticated historical narration through which it is generally held he comes to grip with the saga. To begin a life with the beginning of a life is an inconclusive beginning, what with what’s known, has been known since the beginning: that there is no beginning, that the measuring of time from the six days of creation on is only now and ever was a palliative fiction. If time is the measure of change and outcome, the unconscious, tolerating neither of these things, is timeless. (p. 180)

An example. McCourt’s narrator – one wonders how wise it is to conflate him with McCourt – early in the book claims to have gone to school with Rudolph Giuliani and posits, in considerably colorful language, that the problem with him stemmed from his poor early choice in opera divas. Certainly it would be possible to verify whether McCourt and Giuliani went to school together, and perhaps whether Giuliani was a devotee of Renata Tebaldi. Someone with more knowledge of opera history than I have could judge whether love of Tebaldi was a signifier of jingoistic ethnic consciousness; but to find in this detail, real or imaginary, the seeds of smallmindedness that would later bear vigorous fruit in the city is the work of an artist, making the young Giuliani seem more interesting than he probably was. Giuliani was a buffoon at best, and history will probably think even worse of him than McCourt does. But this anecdote, regardless of its truth, manages to beatify him, returning him to the point where he could, conceivably, have not screwed it up.

And yet I find myself most taken by the minor details. McCourt grew up in Jackson Heights, the neighborhood in Queens I recently left. It’s odd to find myself so familiar with the geography he describes: the neighborhood has remade itself several times over since he lived there, though some of the ancient Irish ladies he describes are still wandering the streets making racist comments. But his characters give directions to taxi drivers identical to the ones I did many times: it’s a perfectly observed detail that resonates for me though I can’t imagine that it will for most of the potential readers of this book, most of whom have never had to give instructions about the Queensborough Bridge. That he gets this so right, however, impacts what I think about the book, which is by and large describing worlds I know very little of, in large part because they’re vanished like McCourt’s childhood: I can say very little of the gay opera world that once existed in New York. Most people can’t. But McCourt is able to make it solidly alive: if it didn’t exist, maybe it should have.

It’s hard to ascribe a strict chronology to Lasting City – as in Tristram Shandy, he only gets around to being born halfway through the book – but it focuses on McCourt’s childhood: one hopes for more, as one hopes for the promised sequel to Now Voyagers.

march 16–31, 2014

Books

  • Sara Maitland, A Book of Silence

Films

  • Enemies of the People, directed by Rob Lemkin & Thet Sambath
  • Mud, dir. Jeff Nichols
  • The Blue Dahlia, dir. George Marshall
  • Capturing the Friedmans, dir. Andrew Jarecki
  • L’image manquante (The Missing Picture), dir. Rithy Panh
  • Breaking Away, dir. Peter Yates
  • La Bella del Alhambra, dir. Enrique Pineda Barnet

Exhibits

  • Kamthieng House Museum, Siam Society

march 1–15, 2014

Books

  • Lydia Peelle, Reasons for and Advantages of Breathing
  • Alberto Moravia, Paradise, translated by Angus Davidson
  • Edmund White, Chaos: A Novella and Short Stories
  • Philip Short, Pol Pot: The History of a Nightmare
  • Paul Metcalf, Both

Films

  • Tell Them Anything You Want: A Portrait of Maurice Sendak, directed by Lance Bangs & Spike Jonze
  • This Gun for Hire, dir. Frank Tuttle
  • Her, dir. Spike Jonze
  • The Lego Movie, dir. Phil Lord & Christopher Miller

Exhibits

  • “Radiation: Art and Queer Ideas from Bangkok and Manila, Un-Compared,” Chulalongkorn University Art Center
  • “Scot Cotterell: Everything all at once now (and then some),” Speedy Grandma
  • “Daniel Cordonnier: The Beauty of Peace,” Modern Gallery
  • “Wittawat Tongkeaw: Essence,” La Lanta Fine Art
  • “Hello World,” Thailand Creative & Design Center

silence

“In terms of shaping a silent life this image raises some interesting questions – is the silence in the hearing or the speaking? If I keep a journal, say, with no intention of ‘transmitting’ its content to anyone ever, is that a more silent activity than writing this book in the hope that you will read it and head what I have to say? Is writing, or even reading, which use language but not noise, ‘silent’ in any case?”

(Sara Maitland, A Book of Silence, p. 27.)

february 1–14, 2014

Films

  • Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa, directed by Jeff Tremaine

Exhibits

  • “Andrew J. West: Three Worlds,” BACC
  • “Concept Context Contestation: Art and the Collective in Southeast Asia,” BACC
  • “Media/Art Kitchen: Reality Distortion Field,” BACC
  • “Pradi Tungpasartwong: Confrontation: The Three Elements of Life,” Chulalongkorn University Art Centre
  • “Fernando Aceves Humana: Opening Wounded Eden,” Toot Yung Art Center
  • “Brand New 2013 Art Project,” WTF Bangkok

stanzas in meditation, part three (2/2)

(The first half of part three is here.)

stanzas in meditation, part three (1/2)

(Part two is here.)

january 16–31, 2014

Books

  • David Bellos, Is That a Fish in Your Ear? The Amazing Adventure of Translation
  • Aleksandar Hemon, The Book of My Lives
  • Aleksandar Hemon, The Question of Bruno
  • Henri Mouhot, Travels in Siam, Cambodia, Laos, and Annam
  • Lawrence Wright, Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, & the Prison of Belief
  • Norman Lewis, A Dragon Apparent: Travels in Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam

Films

  • The Sin of Harold Diddlebock, directed by Preston Sturges
  • Casanova Brown, dir. Sam Wood
  • Holiday, dir. George Cukor
  • Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife, dir. Ernst Lubitsch

Exhibits

  • “Alexface: The Underground Adventure,” Artery Post-Modern Gallery
  • “Poom Pachavanish: When I Was Just a Little Boy,” Number 1 Gallery
  • “Jackkrit Anantakul: Shape and Form,” Speedy Grandma