Thursday, July 31, 2008

The Uncommon Reader: Alan Bennett

The old saying about ill winds came back to me when I was on a bus in central London. As is their wont, this bus decided to stop midway through its route. So all of us had to get down, at the corner of Oxford Street and Tottenham Court Road. As I stepped on to the road on that rainy summer evening, I saw the Waterstones bookstore across the street, and decided to duck in there for a few minutes before chasing my next bus. It was in this unexpected visit to the bookstore that I picked up The Uncommon Reader.

A chance incident also provides the premise for the book. While tending to her dog, the Queen accidentally bumps into a travelling library. This sets her off on an unusual royal pursuit: Reading. What happens when the Queen of England starts reading books?

In a breezy 100-and-a-few pages of this ironic parable, Alan Bennett manages to weave in many threads in a simple linear narrative. Well, I suppose the premise lends itself rather effortlessly to a multitude of angles.

On writing, Alan Bennett has a lot to say. Some preachy, some funny, all believable. None more so when an unnamed Scottish writer is asked by the Queen where his inspiration comes from, and he replies fiercely,

“It doesn’t come, Your Majesty. You have to go out and fetch it.”

Oh well, the naiveté of the question suggests a dig on the royalty, except that there are more delicious examples of that.

Once I start a book I finish it. That was the way one was brought up. Books, bread and butter, mashed potato – one finishes what’s on one’s plate. That’s always been my philosophy.

Notice how upbringing becomes philosophy in the space of three sentences?

The less initiated may wonder why the royalty is not known for its reading, and why the courtiers of the queen worried about her reading even before it started affecting her royal duties. Well, the answer is provided rather brilliantly by the Queen herself as she reflects on reading.

The appeal of reading, she thought, lay in its indifference: there was something lofty about literature. Books did not care who was reading or whether one read them or not. All readers are equal, herself included.

Gasp! The queen equal to the Commoner?

As the Queen ploughs through a range of writers starting with the obscure Ivy Compton-Bennett and moving on to, among others (and in no particular order), Anita Brookner, Ian McEwan, A S Byatt, Dylan Thomas, Virginia Woolf, Charles Dickens, Salman Rushdie, Sylvia Plath, Henry James, WM Thackeray, TS Eliot, the Brontë sisters, Thomas Hardy, Marcel Proust, Samuel Pepys and Alice Munro, her reading style develops as well.

To begin with, it’s true, she read with trepidation and with some unease. The sheer endlessness of books outfaced her and she had not idea how to go on; there was no system to her reading, with one book leading to another, and often she had two or three on the go at the same time. The next stage had been when she started to make notes, after which she always read with a pencil in hand, not summarising what she read but simply transcribing passages that struck her. It was only after a year or so of reading and making notes that she tentatively ventured on the occasional thought of her own.

With a subject like this, you wouldn’t expect any other significant characters in the book – it’s perhaps even an element of the plot that the queen dominates every page of the book. However, two characters clearly had potential for a meatier characterisation: Norman Seakins, the kitchen-boy-turned-amanuensis and Sir Kevin Scatchard, the Queen’s private secretary. A lesser author might have succumbed to temptation and given these people more in the book.

The Queen’s transition from reading to writing is not surprising and therefore the book’s ending is a bit of a clichéd surprise, if you will pardon the oxymoron. But then that’s hardly the thrust of the book.

From many angles, this is an insightful and important book on reading and writing. Drop whatever you are reading just now and head for the store.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The Good Thief’s Guide to Amsterdam: Chris Ewan

This is what the back of the book had to say about its plot.

In Amsterdam working on his latest novel, Charlie is approached by a mysterious American who asks him to steal two apparently worthless monkey figurines from two separate addresses on the same night. At first he says no. Then he changes his mind. Only later, kidnapped and bound to a chair, the American very dead, and a spell in police custody behind him, does Charlie realise how costly a mistake he might have made.

The police think he killed the American. Others think he knows the whereabouts of the elusive third monkey. But for Charlie only three things matter. Can he clear his name? Can he get away with the haul of a lifetime? And can he solve the gaping plot hole in his latest novel?

The most interesting aspect of Chris Ewan’s debut work is the profession of the protagonist: Charlie Howard doesn’t just write books about a career thief, he also happens to be one. And this case, he also solves the crime. The characterisation brims with possibilities. Of intersecting and diverging plots, parallel narratives, common characters, a Lhosa-like spillover from the story to the street and vice versa, and much more. May be Chris Ewan will make capital of these in future (this book claims to be the first in a series). May be that’s why he has defined the protagonist the way he has.

With such a protagonist, I suppose one should not be surprised at the use of the first person narrative. Except that it comes with its own inevitable bit of navel-gazing – that this is a first novel of the author comes through in this – the protagonist, like the author, appears to be too conscious of himself at times.

There are but a handful of characters in the entire book, and all of them are suspects. And then there are the cops. With enough crime fiction under your belt, you should know where this is heading. Shades of Oscar Wilde and the Candlelight Murders here, including the identity of the real criminal? Oops, did I reveal too much?

I find crime fiction set in different countries and cities to be more interesting than travelogues and guide books; the crime makes a good backdrop and the process of investigation affords a good sense of the country / city – the geography, the people, the politics and economics of the country, the corruption, the weather, etc. Maj Sjöwall / Per Wahlöö and Henning Mankell are my local travel guides for Sweden; Georges Simenon serves as a good Lonely Planet for France; Arlandur Indridason shows you around Iceland; and scores of writers lay bare the towns, cities and villages of England and the US. Unfortunately, except for the odd walk through the city roads and a few anonymous restaurants, The Good Thief’s Guide doesn’t provide so much as a picture postcard of Amsterdam; this book could’ve been set just as well anywhere in the world. Well, I suppose it’s my fault really, the key is to pick up a work by a native writer: Chris Ewan is an Englishman.

There were a few unmistakable alert signals with The Good Thief’s Guide. To begin with, the title itself. It’s one of those that suggest that the book can only sit in the extremes. The tagline that goes with the title (Three Wise Monkeys. One Baffled Thief.) offered no reassurance either. Then there was the fact that author-signed copies of the book were freely available in the High Street in London. Especially considering it is a debut work, this surely is a staggering exhibition of arrogance, confidence or desperation? On the other hand, these factors together perhaps reduced my expectation when I went into the book – I found the book to be racy and witty, notwithstanding the warts and all.