“Literature is a luxury, fiction is a necessity”

“Literature is a luxury, fiction is a necessity”

As I shared with you two posts ago, these days I am reading Negotiating With the Dead- A Writer On Writing by Margaret Atwood. The book is a long essay on the role of the writer in the society, what shapes a writer and the various devices writers use. Atwood talks about her formative years and how she came to be a writer (these autobiographical details form the most interesting part of the book). It is great to see how a writer can talk with such ease at the same time about James Joyce and the torment that most modern authors go through, that is, the 20-city book tour . Her style is witty, funny and conversational- that’s three things I expect these days from a book. But still, I have noticed that my mind wanders away, as if looking for and missing something and at times I have been unable to pay any attention to the text. And I know it isn’t because I am disinterested. To my relief, I have at last realised what plagued me.

The answer struck me accompanied with a quotation of G.K. Chesterton that I read in the school library once- “Literature is a luxury, fiction is a necessity.”  My reading lacked the amusement of the imaginitive format of fiction, having entirely limited my reading to non-fiction. I needed to meet unknown characters, encounter new settings, plots and emotions. The void inside me could only be filled with fiction, an author’s imagination, a brainchild and extract of her (it may well be his) conscious and subconscious experiences.

I have thus decided to embark on a simultaneous journey with The Collected Stories of Katherine Mansfield which I bought on a visit to the Delhi Book Fair this year with the school’s Book Club. I read about Katherine Mansfield for the first time in my life in the Guardian (over the years it has become my favourite newspaper) in the British Council Library. A writer, whose name now I fail to recollect, had talked about Katherine Mansfield being her hero and how the short story writer’s relationships with both men and women influenced her work. The feature was accompanied Anne Estelle Rice’s portrait of Katherine Mansfield (scroll down to see). I remember leaping from the canapé (right, there are canapés at the British Council Library) to the computer that was right in front of me- the one that until a second ago someone else was using, who had forgotten to log out from his Facebook account- and looked up for Katherine Mansfield. That the day was still vividly alive in my memory made me smile when I saw at a stall her book whose proud owner I now am.

I guess it will be a journey of self discovery now that I have submitted myself to two very able female writers to guide me on my way who will take care of both, my necessities and luxuries.

Portrait of Katherine Mansfield

Margaret Atwood

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‘Booking a Journey’

Here is an article on the centenary celebrations of the declaration of Delhi as the National Capital. National Book Trust, to mark this ocassion, is organising weekend ‘Book Bazaars’ in various parts of the city. I, too, was asked to comment (see the last paragraph).


(This article was printed in the edition of 14th January, 2011 of HT City, the principal supplement of the leading daily Hindustan Times)

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Man Booker Prize- the Book or the Author?

Man Booker Prize

 

The Man Booker Prize goes to… the Book and not the Author!

On a recent trip to the bookstore where I worked last summer, I bought Margaret Atwood‘s charming and delicious Negotiating With the Dead- A Writer on Writing (Virago,2003). The book is based on a series of lectures delivered by the Canadian author on writing and the role of the writer at the University of Cambridge. I am entirely possessed by her writing and I consider myself fortunate that I discovered her (or she discovered me). So enchanted I am by her wit and style, that I have been searching for more of her books on Flipkart, pondering which one to buy and read next.  Having read an impressive review of Lady Oracle (1973), her third novel, I began to make up my mind about buying it. I was comparing prices at Infibeam and Flipkart (how economical of me!), when I noticed ‘Winner of the Man Booker Prize 2000’ printed on the cover of a 2001 paperback. Really? Trusting my (reliable) knowledge about Booker Prize winners, it was The Blind Assassin, another work by Atwood and not Lady Oracle that had won the Booker in 2000. This chink in my Booker knowledge armour was meant to be done away with as soon as possible. I looked up on Wikipedia and the Man Booker website for reassurance and, as I had foreseen, my good sense won. It was The Blind Assassin and not Lady Oracle. There you go.

2001 paperback

Interestingly, no such epithet was printed on the cover of a similar but newer edition on another website.

The series of events led me to conclude (pardon if I sound a little like Sherlock Holmes) that someone at the renowned publishing house, Virago, an imprint of Little, Brown and Co. had misinterpreted that it was Margaret Atwood and not her novel that won the Man Booker Prize in the year 2000. And they had corrected the error in the next reprint, presumably after this howler had made many toes curl. But wait, that’s what you think too, no? It’s Aravind Adiga who won the Booker, you’d say. And Salman Rushdie, and Kiran Desai, and Arundhati Roy. No, it’s The White Tiger, Midnight’s Children, The Inheritance of Loss and The God of Small Things.

Here is a video of Chair Judge Andrew Motion announcing the winner of the Man Booker Prize 2010, which is The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson. Not, mind you, Howard Jacobson.

You don’t give even a fig, do you? The Writer or the Work, the Work or the Writer, how does it matter? After all, it’s the author who takes £50,000 home after winning the prize. Of course, you are right, but only partly. One could say ‘the Booker Prize-winning author of ‘the book he won the prize for’ ‘, but do not address an author as a ‘Booker Prize Winner’. Don’t let a jeu de mots get the better out of you.

Come what may, confusing the two is hardly passable. Atwood once read a rather funny and pithy line in a magazine- ‘Wanting to meet an author because you like his work is like wanting to meet a duck because you like pâté.’ Heraclites said, you never step into the same river twice, read- you never write the same book twice. The Man Booker Prize, unlike the Nobel Prize for Literature, “promotes the finest in fiction by rewarding the very best book of the year”. That is, an individual work isolated from the rest of the writer’s writing life. Martin Amis, Ian McEwan and Salman Rushdie are arguably three of the greatest living masters of contemporary English literature and their works have won the Booker Prize in the past, yet their novels published in 2010 (The Pregnant Widow by Amis, Solar by McEwan and Luka and the Fire of Life by Rushdie)  couldn’t make it to the Booker longlist. There’s a fine line between the work alone being rewarded and receiving recognition for a whole life dedicated to writing. It’s not merely about saying it right to keep a literary faux pas at bay but also understanding the confusion (I wasted some precious time to confirm whether I was right about Lady Oracle), misconceptions and mischief incomplete knowledge may lead to.

So, the next time someone comes up to you and says, “I am going to read a novel by a Booker Prize Winner” (and yes, there are sweethearts who say such things, ouch), Dear Reader, do raise a couple of contemptuous eyebrows to honour my memory.

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Sipping tea with Amitabha Bagchi (Part 1)

Sipping Tea with Amitabha Bagchi (Part 1)

On the morning on December 22, 2010, I was flu-stricken, sleepy and chilled to the bone. It was a holiday for the 11th standard and I had no particular reason to make the effort of getting out of bed, dragging myself to the bathroom and dressing up for school. Save one. For the first time in the History of the Great Literary Club of the Even Greater Bal Bharati Public School was an author coming to interact with the members. The President had to be there. She wanted to be there. To see History in Making.

For those who don’t know, when the Literary Club was a baby, it was called, very humbly, the Book Club. And it wasn’t just any other baby, but my baby. The pains that I took to make the idea a reality, to get people to read and discuss books, to withstand the scorn of my seniors! Like all mothers in the world, who never quite realise when the baby sprang from the womb and then, as if out of nowhere, became an independent adult one day, I never realised when my brainchild the Book Club was metamorphosed (by the school management) into the self-governed Literary Club. But then, like all mothers in the world, I was happy that it had.

So, standing in the driveway of the school on a dry wintry morning, when I saw a long white car approaching, and I knew it was him, my heart skipped a beat. My mind was back in the school library. Have they arranged the refreshments? Are the chairs in place? I hope they’ve spread the tablecloth right. I was like a jittery mother whose daughter is getting married, scared of the saasuma raising an eyebrow on seeing even a minor, otherwise imperceptible glitch. Amitabha Bagchi got out of the car and smiled at me. I extended my hand. Slightly embarrassed by how warm was his hand and how cold was mine, I still managed to utter as we shook hands, “Hello. I am the President of the Literary Club. Welcome to Bal Bharati.” He smiled again.

I came to know about Amitabha Bagchi in 2009, somewhere around the time I was busy trying to set up the Book Club. A school had organised a book discussion competition of Bagchi’s debut novel Above Average (Harper Collins, 2007). A couple of seniors I knew well had participated won the first prize. D was really excited about the book and had really liked it. I had seen the cover—beautifully done, the portrait of a boy with (I gather) apprehension and a slight pain in his big, brown eyes, the letters ‘a-b-o-v-e   a-v-e-r-a-ge’ balanced loosely on stretched guitar strings.

On our way through the corridors to the school library, we talked about the Literary Club and how enthusiastic the members were to have him, all the more as it was the first time an author was coming to meet us. He was warm and engaging. No ‘I-am-a-published-author’ fussiness. Mommy Literary Club was no longer jittery.

Read part 2– less of background blabber and more about the session (coming soon)
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To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee- 50th Anniversary

The Mockingbird Lives On

“I think there’s just one kind of folks. Folks.”

-Scout Finch, To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee

I summoned myself to read To Kill A Mockingbird when I was 14.  I had been an avid reader all the time, before I could realise I was one. Unlike many others, I never spent my childhood reading Sherlock Holmes or Enid Blyton. I read anything and everything I could lay my hands on, sometimes even adult fiction. And when it dawned on me how essential reading was to me- that without it I felt my intellectual capacities wearing away, that without it time stuck like a gluey, curdled liquid and refused to flow, that without it life was insipid- I began to grow as a reader. I decided to push away the boundaries drawn around me, I tried to experiment a little with different genres, tried to read authors that had changed the lives of other aspiring authors, the books that were the talk of the century. The book had been gathering dust on my bookshelf since a couple of years. So, when I read that To Kill a Mockingbird had topped the list of ‘Books to Read Before You Die’ (and, of course, 2012 was just round the corner), I decided to dig into the treasure on my bookshelf that I had been oblivious to for so long. Somewhere amidst this, you could have found me in the school library concentrating hard to read Harper Lee’s only novel.

I had never read anything like Lee’s writing before. Her words came and hit me hard- yet there was softness, humour and innocence in the narrative of the eight year-old tomboyish daughter of upright lawyer, Atticus Finch, living in the Deep South in the 30s. Would you scorn at me if I confessed that I struggled with the first fifty pages? It was as if I were dealing with a revelation, a veil had been lifted off my eyes- that a great work of literature was finally acquainting itself with me. I could identify with the narrator’s voice- “Scout” Finch, a voracious reader, non-conformist in her own way, dealing with a sudden confrontation with the hypocrisy and double-standards of the adult world. A little girl she is, but her determination can put many a literary heroines at shame.

Come to think of it, merely two years have passed. Yet, as the novel turned 50 and I turned 16, I discovered it in a wholly new light. And I finally found a novel I could read for a second time without the ennui of repetition. If I could say more eloquently, I bumped into an old friend on my way after many months and realised that the passage of time has just made us happier to see each other.

As I write, the temptation of reading it again entices me. Why not? There couldn’t be a better way to end the year. I can remember how I convinced my mother to buy it to me four years ago. “Shoot all the bluejays you want, if you can hit ’em, but remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird– a lawyer’s advice to his children as he defends the real mockingbird of this enchanting classic- a black man charged with the rape of a white girl”, I read the blurb out to her as she nodded in approval. There’s an overwhelming nostalgia, a mysticalness about my journey with To Kill the Mockingbird.

Whenever I look at the edition I own (a black paperback with a simple sketch of a mockingbird), I see three curious children- Jem, Scout and Dill- trying to find out a way to befriend their mysterious neighbour “Boo” Radley. There’s a loving father who doesn’t feel reluctant to answer his daughter’s question on rape (When a child asks you something, answer him, for goodness’ sake.  But don’t make a production of it.  Children are children, but they can spot an evasion quicker than adults, and evasion simply muddles ’em.). I see Tom Robinson, an innocent black victimised by a prejudiced society.

So, what’s so special about a novel turning half a century old? Some works are remembered and cherished as they age, others simply wither away. Age is what distinguishes most books that make a difference to people’s lives, books that affirm how powerful words can change the course of history or record it. To Kill A Mockingbird has been on the shelves for 50 years and has sold over 30 million copies. It has become a spellbinding legacy passed on from one generation to the other. It has stood the test of time- the greatest asset to a work and the biggest satisfaction to an anxious artist.

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A Bookworm’s Summer (Part 2)

A Bookworm’s Summer

Part 2

At Full Circle ©The Delhiwalla

June, 2010

On the first day at work, I was told to reach the bookstore late in the morning. Since I didn’t know how to ‘dress for work’, I resorted to the safest bet- a white blouse and blue jeans. The employee at the cash counter who had directed me on my last visit turned out to be the manager of the bookstore. Very soft-spoken and good-natured, Ashish Sir handed me a notepad and a pencil as he introduced me to the rest of the staff and showed me around the bookstore and pointing at various sections- fiction, non-fiction, ‘mind, body and soul’ (a sort of euphemism for self-help), history and economics and a special one dedicated to Indian authors. Sue Townsend, Susan Sontag, Oliver Sacks, Alan de Botton, Naom Chomsky- I looked at a host of names of unknown authors and meticulously jotted them down. There was still a lot for me to know.

The bookstore opens at 9:30 A.M. everyday, including Sundays (the rest of Khan Market remains closed on Sunday). The early morning customers are usually backpackers who come to the bookstore after having breakfast at the café. Most of them are friendly; if not asking for directions, you might find them cracking jokes. I particularly remember a Monsieur in his late 50s, a French diplomat, who had come to buy desi Mona Lisa bags (for the record , that’s a handcrafted bag with a print of Mona Lisa wearing a Rajasthani lehenga) from the gift shop for his wife’s friends back in France. I had my eye on a brooch he was wearing, engraved with the flags of France and India and images of the Gateway of India and the Eiffel Tower. He was surprised when I recognised he was French by the way he spoke English (and of course, the brooch). We soon began talking and I accompanied him to the café where he was served lemonade (gratuit, of course, since he bought so many hand bags). Impressed by my fluent French, after paying for the bags, he took off his brooch and offered it to me as a present. I was thrilled! My colleagues congratulated me. I was trying my best to keep the customers happy and I could see my efforts yielding fruit. I always reminiscence of him as the kindest and most charming Frenchman I ever met.

Gradually, I started to become a part of the fabric of the bookstore. I felt at home with my co-workers and the unfamiliarity began to break unconsciously as it does between strangers living together. When uneasiness and discomfiture are replaced by trust and bonhomie- it can’t be traced back to a point on a timeline. Life would be such a pain if we refused to make strangers friends. Would we have any friends at all?

To my delight, the chaiwalla would come twice a day, once in the morning and then in the evening, pouring a very sweet concoction of ginger and tea in cheap plastic cups. I was extremely wary of this ‘unhygienic kerbside’ tea at first and didn’t have any for the first two days. But then, tea’s tea. As Italian writer Cesare Pavese said, we do not remember days; we remember moments. I do not know when those moments of conversations and advice from my colleagues over many cups of tea slipped away. But I still remember them with a sweet fondness whenever I think of the bookstore.

Kim in action ©The Delhiwalla

Another of my more memorable encounters at Full Circle was quite unexpected. A smart and impressionable woman with very short hair walked in the bookstore one day and her presence created a buzz. Arshad, who manages the fiction section, informed me she was the author of Prism Me a Lie, Tell Me a Truth: Tehelka as a Metaphor. I had never heard of the book. I went up to her as she searched for something in the cooking section and asked if she was looking something in particular and if I could be of some help. The lady turned out to be Madhu Trehan, the wife of eminent surgeon Naresh Trehan, and the founder of India Today. Her humility and approachability would have never let these facts be betrayed. She introduced herself as a “freelance journalist and writer”, something too understating for a renowned journalist like her. I was talking to the founder of India Today without even knowing it.  She talked about her TV show Newstrack and seeing the blank look on my face, she laughed it off, “Don’t worry. How would you know? You were just six when I was anchoring it!” That was comforting. I felt as if I was talking to an old friend and not a veteran journalist. As she left, she wished me all the best for my future.

Mayank Austen Soofi, journalist with the Hindustan Times (as I write this, his books on Delhi are ‘selling like hot cakes everywhere‘), whom I know for some time now, would come on Saturdays armed with the latest edition of the New York Review of Books or Jane Austen’s Complete Works. I would try all my marketing skills on him considering the mutual weakness for books! (Not that he would refrain from buying in my absence!)

Every morning I walked in and saw the same faithful books, more often new ones, welcoming me. I discovered new writing styles, authors and genres that perhaps I would have remained oblivious to for a few more years had it not been for this job. I met new people from different walks of life, everyone had a unique story to tell. For a month, I felt as if I were at the centre of the literary world- I was au courant with all new writers and new arrivals. It enriched me as a bibliophile and exposed me to a variety of experiences that transformed a part of me for ever.

After attending French language classes on weekends, I often stop by at the bookstore to meet the people who made my summer memorable. Old and new titles rest on the shelves as always. I pick one and read the blurb. I dig my nose in the book and drown in its fragrance. It is the same. The only difference is that earlier I was behind the counter making the bill, now I am the customer and paying it. Along with ten percent discount, I am offered a warm and affectionate welcome that any customer would be envious of.

(Read Part 1)

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A Bookworm’s Summer (Part 1)

A Bookworm’s Summer

Ever imagined what happens when a bibliophile gets a summer job in one of the best bookstores in the city?

Part 1

Last Week of May, 2010

“I want a job before college begins. I am done with filling admission forms. More importantly, I want pocket money—independence.” J sounded enthusiastic. I was out of breath after running to catch an elusive red AC bus. We were going to spend the day in the British Council and American Center libraries.

Hearing J talk about independence and money, I got excited. What if I get a job? I just roam about lazily at home in my pyjamas and there are still two months before I get back to school and homework and teachers and rat-race. I want a job. Decided.

But where? Of course in a bookstore. Where else? I could help those having in mind the idea of a book they would like to read but are confused about what exactly to read/buy. (Daydream- Customer: You know, I want a good French cookbook but it shouldn’t be very cumbersome as I am a housewife who likes cooking and not a professional cook. Me: Of course. I would recommend you Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Customer: Yeah, I have heard about her. Why didn’t that cross my mind? Me: *Smiles and more smiles. The head held a few inches higher than usual*) And then… the very idea of spending a summer with books! I had read about Bahrisons in Khan Market, frequented by the likes of Shashi Tharoor and Rahul Gandhi. Bahrisons is the premier bookstore of Delhi. And that was where I was going to work. Or at least I thought so.

J and I found ourselves headed for Khan Market. Bahrisons was exactly like what I had imagined it to be. Talking to the owner Anuj Bahri about a summer job was certainly not. “No vacancies here. But wait, we need staff in the new branch at Saket. You could mail me your CV and I might just consider it.” I reckoned I would be spending all my salary on commuting if I took the job at Saket. Hard luck.

We were walking through the Middle Lane when we came across the jointly owned Café Turtle and Full Circle Bookstore (one of the places in the city which popularised the concept of a biblio-café) . I had read about it in one of Mayank’s columns. I vaguely remembered that the place had been shifted from the Front Lane to the Middle Lane. We walked in.

I gasped hungrily at the well-stocked shelves, searched through books, the music CDs, the handcrafted bookmarks in the gift shop. The place was undoubtedly more spacious and better-organised than Bahrisons. I asked an employee at the cash counter about job vacancies. He directed me to mail my CV to the owner.

I got home and mailed my CVs to Bahrisons, Full Circle, Teksons and The Book Shop. A couple of days later, I got an answer from Full Circle. They were apparently impressed by my CV and wanted me to come over to their office in Jor Bagh for an interview.

On the day of my interview, I must have walked about a kilometre and a half in the afternoon heat to find the place. I was sweating, tanned and out of breath when I finally reached. Mrs. Poonam Malhotra, the owner, was there to interview me. Her hazel eyes shone brighter than the huge solitaires she was wearing. She talked about what I expected from the job and what she would expect me to do- making weekly lists of bestsellers, handling customers etc. Her elegance and perfect poise made me further nervous. But I think she understood that I was an ambitious sixteen-year-old who wanted to make the best of her summer and had struggled to find the place on a hot summer day. She smiled and did her best to make me at ease. Guess what, I was in.

I was going to work in a bookstore.

(Read part 2)

Full Circle Bookstore © Mayank Austen Soofi


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Ever smelt a book?

Ever smelt a book?

Have you ever smelt those sepia-toned pages of your favourite book? Ever found yourself lost in the soft fragrance of a Vintage edition and all your senses participating in your reading session?Ever hugged an old book like a long-lost friend you just met again on the way? Ever felt an urge to travel to the destination so picturesquely described as the setting of a novel?

I think every bibliophile has experienced these ethereal moments while reading. I, too, recently found myself submerged in an ocean of sentiments and ideas while reading the absorbingly beautiful English translation of Rabindranath Tagore’s Home and the World by Sreejata Guha. For a week, I was hypnotised, mesmerised and felt myself flowing with Tagore’s (and Guha’s) words. So, I bought Guha’s translation of Choker Bali as well.

 

I’ll be writing about the two books soon. So don’t forget to read!

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The Last Letter by Ted Hughes

A letter reduced to ashes

The draft of a poem in which Ted Hughes describes the night his wife, poet Sylvia Plath, committed suicide has been published for the first time. Here is an insight into the life of two eminent poets, their work, relationship and life.

Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath

I first became acquainted with Sylvia Plath and her poetry when I came across her poem Daddy, written shortly before she committed suicide. The poem shook me, gave me goosebumps. I quickly googled her name and found myself absorbed in the Wikipedia page detailing her life, her failed marriage with Poet Laureate Ted Hughes and the ruthless way she chose to end the 30 years of her life. I was 14 then and perhaps a little fascinated by the morbid. A year later, I was studying Plath’s poem Mirror in my class 10 English Literature textbook. My definition of poetry was altered for ever. Since then, Plath’s poetry and life have never ceased to amaze me.

Sylvia Plath was a brilliant student and a Fulbright scholar. Her father died when she was eight and this event  somehow never allowed the sombre clouds of depression to clear away from her life. She first attempted suicide when she was 20 while working at a coveted position as the guest editor with the fashion magazine Mademoiselle. She met her husband, British poet Ted Hughes, while she was in Cambridge University on a government grant. Hughes, an alumnus, was visiting his friend and happened to be there. They met, wrote poems to each other, fell in love and got married a few months later. The poet couple wrote extensively during this period and had two children— but this wasn’t a happy ending. Hughes had an affair with a married woman named Assia Wevill and she got pregnant with their child. Plath and Hughes called off their marriage with Plath taking the custody of their children- Freida and Nicholas. She moved to London and rented the house where poet William Butler Yeats once lived. Ironically, she considered it good omen. The year was 1962 and the winter was the coldest in 100 years. The children kept falling sick, the pipes froze and the house had no telephone. Plath’s depression aggravated leading her to end her life in what I consider the most brutal way of committing suicide— she placed her head in the oven with the gas on and died of carbon monoxide poisoning. She sealed the rooms between the kitchen and the rest of the house and covered them with wet towels and cloths to save her children, peacefully asleep and ignorant of their mother’s ordeal.

Six years later, Assia Wevill killed herself and her daughter from Hughes, Shura, by gassing herself in a way similar to that of Plath. Enraged feminists blamed Hughes for the death of the two women, some even threatened to kill him.

Hughes never commented much on the matter and showed reluctance on expressing his opinion. In 1970, he married Carol Orchard, a nurse, and they stayed together until his death. However, in his last poetic work, Birthday Letters, published in 1998 shortly before his death, he analyses his complex relationship with Plath and alludes to her suicide. Now, a previously unpublished poem by Hughes has been discovered at the British Library 47 years after Plath’s shocking death. The poem, entitled ‘The Last Letter’, deals with the events surrounding the night of Plath’s death in February 1963. He mentions a letter Plath sent him the day before she planned to kill herself. Strangely enough, the letter arrived the same afternoon and he rushed to his estranged wife to ascertain if everything was alright. Plath assured him and burnt the letter in his presence. Hughes writes,

‘Burning your letter to me in the ashtray with that strange smile.

What did you say over the smoking shards of the letter…’

In the poem, Hughes reveals he was with Susan Alliston, and not Assia Wevill, the night Sylvia killed herself.

‘That night
My dellarobbia Susan.

[…]

We went to Rugby St
Where you and I began.’

The poem is very disturbing and is more like a diary entry of a distraught husband with a guilty conscience.  Somewhere it seems that he is imagining events where he was unresponsive and taciturn to Sylvia, like never being in his apartment to answer her phone calls. Her images haunt him,

‘How often you walked to the phone-booth
At the bottom of St George’s terrace.
You are there whenever I look, just turning
Out of Fitzroy Road’

The Last Letter was never published in Hughes’ lifetime as it remained incomplete to the day of his death in October 1998. Was it for his illness, choice or conscience, we’ll never know.

This image is from the original draft of the poem ©New Statesman

In 1982, Sylvia Plath posthumously won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. Her works, along with those of Ted Hughes, remain extremely popular and widely read to this day. Is it the heart-wrenching tragedy that makes the “peanut-crunching” public flock to their story, I don’t know. At least for me, it is the somewhat intangible element and delicate nature of their poetry and style, strongly influenced by their personal histories. At times, I find myself sympathising with Sylvia and condemning Hughes of treachery, cruelty and infidelity. What actually happened between them? Who was wrong? It doesn’t really matter. And as for unfinished tales, we all try to give them the ending that pleases us the best.

The Last Letter by Ted Hughes

What happened that night? Your final night.
Double, treble exposure
Over everything. Late afternoon, Friday,
My last sight of you alive.
Burning your letter to me, in the ashtray,
With that strange smile. Had I bungled your plan?
Had it surprised me sooner than you purposed?
Had I rushed it back to you too promptly?
One hour later—-you would have been gone
Where I could not have traced you.
I would have turned from your locked red door
That nobody would open
Still holding your letter,
A thunderbolt that could not earth itself.
That would have been electric shock treatment
For me.
Repeated over and over, all weekend,
As often as I read it, or thought of it.
That would have remade my brains, and my life.
The treatment that you planned needed some time.
I cannot imagine
How I would have got through that weekend.
I cannot imagine. Had you plotted it all?

Your note reached me too soon—-that same day,
Friday afternoon, posted in the morning.
The prevalent devils expedited it.
That was one more straw of ill-luck
Drawn against you by the Post-Office
And added to your load. I moved fast,
Through the snow-blue, February, London twilight.
Wept with relief when you opened the door.
A huddle of riddles in solution. Precocious tears
That failed to interpret to me, failed to divulge
Their real import. But what did you say
Over the smoking shards of that letter
So carefully annihilated, so calmly,
That let me release you, and leave you
To blow its ashes off your plan—-off the ashtray
Against which you would lean for me to read
The Doctor’s phone-number.
My escape
Had become such a hunted thing
Sleepless, hopeless, all its dreams exhausted,
Only wanting to be recaptured, only
Wanting to drop, out of its vacuum.
Two days of dangling nothing. Two days gratis.
Two days in no calendar, but stolen
From no world,
Beyond actuality, feeling, or name.

My love-life grabbed it. My numbed love-life
With its two mad needles,
Embroidering their rose, piercing and tugging
At their tapestry, their bloody tattoo
Somewhere behind my navel,
Treading that morass of emblazon,
Two mad needles, criss-crossing their stitches,
Selecting among my nerves
For their colours, refashioning me
Inside my own skin, each refashioning the other
With their self-caricatures,

Their obsessed in and out. Two women
Each with her needle.

That night
My dellarobbia Susan. I moved
With the circumspection
Of a flame in a fuse. My whole fury
Was an abandoned effort to blow up
The old globe where shadows bent over
My telltale track of ashes. I raced
From and from, face backwards, a film reversed,
Towards what? We went to Rugby St
Where you and I began.
Why did we go there? Of all places
Why did we go there? Perversity
In the artistry of our fate
Adjusted its refinements for you, for me
And for Susan. Solitaire
Played by the Minotaur of that maze
Even included Helen, in the ground-floor flat.
You had noted her—-a girl for a story.
You never met her. Few ever met her,
Except across the ears and raving mask
Of her Alsatian. You had not even glimpsed her.
You had only recoiled
When her demented animal crashed its weight
Against her door, as we slipped through the hallway;
And heard it choking on infinite German hatred.

That Sunday night she eased her door open
Its few permitted inches.
Susan greeted the black eyes, the unhappy
Overweight, lovely face, that peeped out
Across the little chain. The door closed.
We heard her consoling her jailor
Inside her cell, its kennel, where, days later,
She gassed her ferocious kupo, and herself.

Susan and I spent that night
In our wedding bed. I had not seen it
Since we lay there on our wedding day.
I did not take her back to my own bed.
It had occurred to me, your weekend over,
You might appear—-a surprise visitation.
Did you appear, to tap at my dark window?
So I stayed with Susan, hiding from you,
In our own wedding bed—-the same from which
Within three years she would be taken to die
In that same hospital where, within twelve hours,
I would find you dead.
Monday morning
I drove her to work, in the City,
Then parked my van North of Euston Road
And returned to where my telephone waited.

What happened that night, inside your hours,
Is as unknown as if it never happened.
What accumulation of your whole life,
Like effort unconscious, like birth
Pushing through the membrane of each slow second
Into the next, happened
Only as if it could not happen,
As if it was not happening. How often
Did the phone ring there in my empty room,
You hearing the ring in your receiver—-
At both ends the fading memory
Of a telephone ringing, in a brain
As if already dead. I count
How often you walked to the phone-booth
At the bottom of St George’s terrace.
You are there whenever I look, just turning
Out of Fitzroy Road, crossing over
Between the heaped up banks of dirty sugar.
In your long black coat,
With your plait coiled up at the back of your hair
You walk unable to move, or wake, and are
Already nobody walking
Walking by the railings under Primrose Hill
Towards the phone booth that can never be reached.
Before midnight. After midnight. Again.
Again. Again. And, near dawn, again.

At what position of the hands on my watch-face
Did your last attempt,
Already deeply past
My being able to hear it, shake the pillow
Of that empty bed? A last time
Lightly touch at my books, and my papers?
By the time I got there my phone was asleep.
The pillow innocent. My room slept,
Already filled with the snowlit morning light.
I lit my fire. I had got out my papers.
And I had started to write when the telephone
Jerked awake, in a jabbering alarm,
Remembering everything. It recovered in my hand.
Then a voice like a selected weapon
Or a measured injection,
Coolly delivered its four words
Deep into my ear: ‘Your wife is dead.’

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What I’ve been reading lately…

A Good Year by Peter Mayle

I came to know about Peter Mayle and his Francophilia while I was working at Full Circle Bookstore, Khan Market (more of that later). Being an admirer of the beautiful region of the South of France, I found the idea of reading something written by a British expatriate living in France very appealing. Occupied with Rabindranath Tagore’s Home and the World for a while,  I completely forgot about it until I stumbled upon A Good Year at the Alliance Française library.

A light read, A Good Year is about a 30-something Londoner, Max Skinner, discouraged by a failed career and marriage, and how his life changes when he receives the news of the death of his uncle in France. Being Uncle Henry’s sole living relative, he has inherited a mansion and vineyard in the (fictional) village of Saint-Pons near Luberon. Encouraged and financially supported by his amateur wine-connoisseur friend Charlie, Max sets out on a journey to Provence where he discovers that his uncle’s wine is no better than “pipi de chat”. He tries to befriend Claude Roussel, much like a giant with a soft heart, who has tended the vineyard and taken care of Max’s uncle; the seductive Maître Nathalie Auzet, whose intentions are not as noble as they seem; Fanny, the flirtatious owner-waitress of a restaurant whom Max finds himself attracted to and a Californian mademoiselle, who unknowingly becomes a threat to Max’s future. Little does he know that a bigger surprise and scandal await him at the end of the vineyard.

Peter Mayle

Pleasant and warm, A Good Year is perfect for those looking for a short trip to Provence on a lazy summer afternoon. It is interesting how Mayle talks about the ridiculously high prices of Bordeaux wine, bought not for drinking and savouring, but as an investissement. I am doubtful whether this is Mayle at his best as a storyteller. The twists and turns are a bit cold and predictable, the picturesque descriptions of French rural life doing their best to subdue all monotony. But then, Mayle’s reputation is not that of a tale-spinner but someone who knows how to pen down the subtle flavours of food and wine like a gourmet without seeming pretentious. Mayle paints an idyllic, oddly perfect picture of rural France, quiet at an instant and festive at the other, with its smug cafés and smiling strangers, making you yearn to be out there.  Full of cinematically perfect scenes, for the first time in my life I felt while reading that a film would do better justice to a tale like this. (It’s only later I found out that A Good Year has already been made into a film). This made the experience slightly dreary.

Cependent, Mayle’s many works on the South of France are still on my reading this, particularly A Year in Provence which chronicles his life as a British expatriate in Provence. I hope his other fictions have a little more thrill to offer. Let’s see what Provence has in store.

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