“Writers Are Wrong to Make Historical Women Strong”

This is the title of an article by Hannah Furness, arts correspondent for The Daily Telegraph, on 1 June 2017.  The quotation is from Dame Hillary Mantel speaking in the second of her five Reith Lectures at the Middle Temple in London.

Hilary Mantel

The article said: “Women writers must stop rewriting history to make their female characters falsely ’empowered’, Dame Hilary Mantel has said.  Dame Hilary, the Man Booker Prize winning novelist, said writing about women in history has ‘persistent difficulties’ for her contemporaries who ‘can’t resist’ retrospectively making them strong and independent.  Anyone ‘squeamish’ about the difference in male and female roles in certain historic periods should, she suggested, try a different job.  Dame Hilary, author of Wolf Hall, singled out her own gender for criticism, questioning whether writers should ‘rework history so victims are the winners’.  She said, ‘Many writers of historical fiction feel drawn to the untold tale.  They want to give a voice to those who have been silenced.  Fiction can do that, because it concentrates on what is not on the record.  But we must be careful when we speak for others.  If we write about the victims of history, are we reinforcing their status by detailing it? Or shall we rework history so victims are the winners?  This is a persistent difficulty for women writers, who want to write about women in the past, but can’t resist retrospectively empowering them.  Which is false.  If you are squeamish – if you are affronted by difference – then you should try some other trade.  She added, ‘A good novelist will have her characters operate within the framework of their day – even if it shocks her readers.’

“Dame Hilary did not single out any particular author, but Philippa Gregory, who has written best sellers including The Other Boleyn Girl and The White Queen, has been praised for her strong characters.  Gregory has previously said: ‘The more research I do, the more I think there is an untold history of women.'”

The article goes on: “A ‘feminist ideology’ could have the unintended consequence of making endings too predictable because the woman would always come out on top, warns Gerard Lee, who co-wrote Top of the Lake (a BBC2 crime serial).  Fellow writer and Palme d’Or winner Jane Campion called his view ‘complete rubbish’.  She said film could change for the better overnight if 50% pf all public funding went to female filmmakers.”

My view is that Dame Hilary has a point: women in Tudor England had very little power or voice over their own affairs.  I haven’t read Philippa Gregory’s novels yet, but I think that giving a real female character, in a historical novel, more voice and power than she actually had is simply misleading.

As to the Lee-Campion disagreement, it’s not clear to me that strong female characters make an ending too predictable, but maybe Mr Lee means something more that strong female characters when he speaks of ‘feminist ideology’.  Ms Campion’s remark strikes me as self-serving, and I would ask her ‘in what way would films be so much better if they were made by females?’  She might be right, but what is the evidence?

Charlie Smith, Novelist

I’m always interested in other writers: what motivates them to write as they do, and their techniques.  My high school alumni magazine has an interview with Charlie Smith (class of ’65), who has written eight novels, a book of novellas, and eight books of prize-winning poetry.  He has won the Aga Khan Prize, the Levinson prize, the J. Howard and Barbara M.J. Wood prize, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.  His writing has appeared in magazines and journals such as The New Yorker, The Paris Review, Harper’s, The New Republic, the New York Times, and The Nation. He lives in New York City and Key West.

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Charlie Smith

His latest novel, Ginny Gall, is the “story of Delvin Walker, and African-American born in Tennessee in 1913.  Young Delvin loses his mother when she flees their home after being accused of murder; is taken in by the kind and literate Cornelius Oliver; has to hightail it out of town after a skirmish with a white boy; and rides the US railroad system in a bid to find a home, a place, his life.  The novel sprawls across the America of Jim Crow and the Great Depression, steeped in segregation, violence and destitution of the era, while vibrantly capturing the making of a man – and a writer.”

Smith is asked about the origins of the story: “Well I’m not really a writer who forecasts his novels; I just start off writing.  But this novel does have a faint template: there are certain skeletal bones that reference the Scottsboro Boys in Alabama in 1931, nine young black men who were pulled off a train, accused of raping a couple of white women and thrown into prison.  Those facts were more than I usually have to go on when I start writing.

“One of the things I wanted to do was write an imagined biography about a young man in peril in the South, the extreme difficulty that someone can find himself in – not of his own making – and how he responds to it.  As far as  the character being a writer, it wasn’t something I thought of before I started the book, but as I moved along, I found myself interested in the side of Delvin that would culminate in someone who was becoming a writer.  So I went along that way, and that’s what followed.”

Smith is asked: “Even the bleakest parts of the book had this sort of light shining on them because of the way you used your language.  Did you maintain that language to show how Delvin’s mind works?”

“Some of that is simply the way I write.  I write pretty dark books – but this one is very light-spattered despite all the trouble and grief – it’s kind  of a square dance compared to the books I usually write.  But the juxtaposition of dark and light is an important part of how I approach a novel, and some of these decisions are intuitive decisions, they’re not something I organize ahead of time.  So the lightness you’re referring to is somewhat characteristic of how I write novels, but it’s also characteristic of this particular person – Delvin Walker – of how he experiences life.”

I must say that I’ve found it beneficial to lay out an rough outline of a novel before I start writing: who the characters are, where and when the action takes place, and the message or point of the story.  It seems to me that Charlie Smith had done exactly this when he says “an imagined biography about a young man in peril in the South, the extreme difficulty that someone can find himself in – not of his own making – and how he responds to it.”  I agree with him that what happens in the story isn’t planned in advance.  It evolves from the characters and the message of the novel.  I usually write a more detailed outline of each chapter before I begin writing it, and this will be a listing of events and reactions to them.  But while I’m writing a novel, the plot and the characters evolve over time.  For example, when I’m about halfway through, I begin to get a sense of how the story will end.  I also agree that the use of language is very important in setting the mood of the story, which changes as events unfold.  Language is also vital in creating distinctive characters.

Review: Silence

The film Silence has been in theaters, lately.  I haven’t seen it yet, but I decided to read the book, Silence, on which it is based. The author, Shusaku Endo (1923 – 1996) was a Japanese author who wrote from the rare perspective of being a Japanese Roman Catholic.  During World Was II, he worked in a munitions factory. After the war, he briefly studied medicine.  He lectured at several universities on the craft of writing, and he took a particular interest in French Catholic authors.  Ill health troubled him for much of his life.  His work was dominated by a single theme: belief in Christianity.  It has been said that Endo was a ‘Japanese Catholic author’ struggling to ‘plant the seeds of his adopted religion’ in the ‘mudswamp’ of Japan.

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Shusaku Endo

Silence is the story of a Portuguese, Catholic priest, Sebastian Rodrigues, who volunteers to go to Japan in the 17th century to minister to Christian converts and to discover why his colleague, Christovao Ferreira, another Portuguese priest, has reportedly apostatized.  The background of Silence is historically accurate.  Christianity was introduced to Japan in 1549 by the co-founders of the Jesuit Order, and the religion found favour with the Japanese court for the next sixty years.  However, the hostility of English and Dutch Protestant missionaries and the desire of Shugun Icyasu to destroy Christian influence in Japan led to ruthless attacks on Japanese Christians, many of whom were tortured, burned alive, or forced to apostatize – renounce their faith.

Rodrigues makes the long sea voyage from Portugal to Japan in the company of another missionary priest: Father Garrpe.  On arrival, and escorted by a shifty Japanese peasant named Kichijiro, they are placed in a remote hut above a Christian village.  As the story unfolds, Kichijiro becomes a surrogate for Judas Iscariot: admiring Rodrigues and helping him, but also so tempted by the reward in silver for leading the Japanese officials to a priest that he succumbs to the temptation.  Kichijiro goes through repeated episodes to apostatizing and then returning to his Christian faith, claiming that he is too weak to resist torture.  The strategy of the Japanese official who is the chief persecutor, Inoue, is to use the Christian peasants as hostages to wring an apostasy from the priests.  With the priests eliminated, the religion will disappear.  In one scene, watched by Rodrigues, three Christian peasants who have apostatized are wrapped tightly in reed blankets and dropped off a boat.  Father Garrpe tries to swim to their rescue, but all four drown.  Rodrigues had been invited to save all four if he would just put his foot on a plaque on which there is the face of Christ.  The psychological torture continues: Rodrigues is kept in prison, un-harmed on meager rations, but exposed to the suffering of Christian peasants.  Ferreira appears, and advises Rodrigues to take the right way out: simply trample on the image.  Rodrigues spends the rest of his life as a comfortable captive, performing translations and writing anti-Christian essays at the behest of his captors.

Silence is not an enjoyable book, but it makes one question one’s own beliefs and assumptions.  The title refers to the silence of God in the face of so much suffering.  How can that be?  And yet, Rodrigues is frequently confronted with mental images and the words of Christ.  The definition of Christianity seems to be based on the concepts of the Japanese oppressors: a flame of strange faith, driven by priestly ritual, which contradicts the warm, comfortable ‘mudswamp’ of Japan, and that a coerced apostasy extinguishes that faith.  I, personally, am not at all comfortable with this definition, which seems far too limiting.  Moreover, given that one of Endo’s objectives as a writer was to introduce his faith to his country, this definition seems unlikely to attract many adherents.  The central messages of Christianity are obscured in the focus on what is faith and the complex role of Judas, and, by extension, on the roles of Pontius Pilate and Herod.

The Daily Telegraph calls Silence, ‘A masterpiece.  There can be no higher praise.’  I disagree.  I would call it, ‘a fine, and thought-provoking, historical novel’.  Some of this divergence in opinion may be a function of timing.  Silence was first published in 1969 (in Japan), and at that time it may have caused something of a sensation.  But for me, now, it seems a dated classic, but still well worth reading.  I didn’t find the prose to be captivating – more ordinary – though perhaps this is the translation.  But, for example, I cannot blame the translator for the inclusion of the phrase ‘a number of” three times in the space of half a dozen lines.

Literary Fiction vs Genre Fiction

I have been somewhat unclear in my mind as to whether I am writing literary fiction or genre (inspirational) fiction.  In some of my early posts, I saw myself as a genre writer of thrillers, but more recently i have moved away from pure thrillers to books which are more philosophical and somewhat theological, although all the books I have written have elements of fairly intense suspense.  So where does that put me: in literary or genre?

I’ve recently found an article in the Huffington Post written by Steven Petite on the above subject.   He is a freelance writer, who, according to the Huffington Post, has appeared in Cigale Literary Magazine. His work has appeared on Playboy.com, Fiction Southeast, New York Game Critics Circle, Indie Game Magazine, The Rock Office, Bago Games, and Cavs Nation.  Well, we won’t hold any of that against him, because

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Steven Petite

his article, for me, makes a lot of sense.  He says:

“Fiction, of course, is a work that is imagined from the mind, a different world than reality.

“An argument can be made that there are two types of fiction when it comes to novels: Genre Fiction and Literary Fiction. The former includes many subcategories such as Mystery/Thriller, Horror, Romance, Western, Fantasy, Science Fiction, etc. The latter is more difficult to classify or break apart into subcategories. To put it simply, Literary Fiction is anything that does not fit into a genre.

“There are certainly high brow literary readers who believe that genre fiction does not deserve any merit. Then there are the types who exclusively read one or two sub-types of genre fiction and automatically classify any “serious” works of literature as pretentious or boring.

“While changing opinions on reading tastes is not easily controllable, the war between Literary Fiction and Genre Fiction is one that will probably continue for years to come.

“The main reason for a person to read Genre Fiction is for entertainment, for a riveting story, an escape from reality. Literary Fiction separates itself from Genre because it is not about escaping from reality, instead, it provides a means to better understand the world and delivers real emotional responses.

“All of the most prestigious awards for fiction each year are given to works of Literary Fiction, which makes it sometimes easy to say that writers who write literary sorts of books are better writers.

“In reality, neither of the two categories of writers necessarily deserve the distinction of being better writers. Different writers is a better word choice.

“Yes, across the bestseller lists there are novels that contain poor writing, and those lists are normally dominated by Genre Fiction. That does not mean that all Genre Fiction writers cannot form competent and engaging prose. The works of Stephen King, Thomas Harris, Michael Crichton, Neil Gaiman, George R.R. Martin, and many others are written with great prose that shows a sound grasp on the written word. Do these types of writers sweep a reader down into their fictionalized world? Yes. But do they provide a means to stay inside reality, through the trials and tribulations of every day life, and deliver a memorable experience that will stick with you emotionally for the rest of your life? In my opinion, no. The works that are well written by genre writers are the ones that provide the best form of entertainment and escapism that fiction has to offer.

“On the other hand, works by writers such as David Foster Wallace, Jonathan Franzen, Haruki Murakami, Cormac McCarthy, Zadie Smith, Don DeLillo, a multitude of other modern day writers, and all of the twentieth century giants such as Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Faulkner, and Joyce, touch the reader in a different way. There is a sense of accomplishment and fulfillment from finishing a “serious” book and the most important aspect in determining if the novel was indeed a remarkable escape not from reality, but into reality, is if a reader reflects on the words after the last page is turned. With really great pieces of Literary Fiction, this reflection can last for days, weeks, months, even years, until the novel pulls you back in to experience the magic all over again.

In essence, the best Genre Fiction contains great writing, with the goal of telling a captivating story to escape from reality. Literary Fiction is comprised of the heart and soul of a writer’s being, and is experienced as an emotional journey through the symphony of words, leading to a stronger grasp of the universe and of ourselves.”

I find this discussion helpful in giving me a clearer definition of what is Literary and what is Genre.  But it doesn’t help me put a specific label on the novels I have written.  They have characteristics of both types.  The article helps be establish a clear direction in which I want to travel: into my reality in a way that fascinates and challenges my readers to explore new ideas.

Joan Wickersham

There is an interview called “Inside the Writing Life” in my high school alumni magazine.  A prominent English instructor is interviewing Joan Wickersham who graduated nearly two decades after me.  Ms Wickersham has been writing most of the time since graduation; her work includes her memoir and 2008 National Book Award finalist, The Suicide Index; a book of short fiction, The News from Spain; and The Paper Anniversary, a novel.  She writes a regular op-ed column for The  Boston Globe; her writing has been published in prominent literary journals; and she has read her work on National Public Radio.

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Joan Wickersham

Two questions and answers in this interview caught my eye.

Q: (David Weber) “You’ve sustained your output over many years.  Does the problem of writer’s block seem remote to you, or have you struggled at times to give your work the priority required?”

Wickersham: “There’s a very funny little moment in a movie I once saw, where a bored, impatient woman is trying to figure out where a piece fits in a jigsaw puzzle and she finally just puts in somewhere and smacks it in with her fist.  Writer’s block is a sign that what I’m doing isn’t working, and I can’t fix it by trying to ram something into a place where it doesn’t belong. It can take months to figure out that what I thought was a piece of the sky is actually a piece of the ocean, or that its a part of a different puzzle altogether.  I hate writer’s block, but I’m always grateful to it in hindsight.  It usually means that what I’ve been writing is somehow false, which is just as bad in fiction as nonfiction.  Writer’s block slows me down and makes me throw out pages and drafts – after I’d been working on the book about my father’s suicide for nine years, I threw out a 400 page manuscript and started over – but getting stuck can be an important investment in finding the right way to tell a story.”

I like this way of thinking about writer’s block: it’s not you that are the problem; it’s the story.  Sometimes, when I sit down to write, I feel cornered.  I’ll look back over what  I’ve written, and ask myself ‘what’s not working?’  Other times, particularly when I’m lying awake at night, I’ll start feeling uneasy about the direction of a particular novel.  That feeling generally leads to surgery.  When I was writing Sable Shadow & The Presence, I threw out and re-wrote whole chapters of the book, which has gone on to win eight awards.

Q: “Does a fully realized piece require its own new form, not just descriptive skill and the authority of honesty?”

Wickersham: “A lot of what I’m doing when I write is trying to figure out the inherent rules of a particular piece – the form or structure which will be most true to the story.  My husband, Jay, is trained as an architect.  A long time ago, when I was struggling to write about my father’s suicide, he told me that the students at the École des Beaux-Arts begin each design with a parti – an organizing principle.  I found this idea of the parti exciting and liberating.  I’d been wresting for years with how to organize the messy and painful story of my father’s death, and part of the problem was that the story defied any attempt at a conventional linear narrative.  When I stumbled in the parti of organizing the book as an index, suddenly I had this cool, numb structure that simultaneously imposed order and ridiculed the idea of imposing order on an inherently chaotic experience”.

I never heard of the term parti before, but it makes sense.  The novel I’m currently working on has an unusual organizing principle: two increasingly hostile narrators, whose identity is obscure at first, tell alternating chapters about three, very different, young protagonists over whom they have influence, but no control.  The setting is present day East Africa.

Review: Selection Day

My wife bought me a copy of this novel – signed by the author!  – while I was briefly in the hospital (nothing very serious) and I wanted something to read.  Hospitals are a great place to read: one is always waiting for the next procedure to take place; one can make oneself comfortable; and it is not particularly noisy!  She bought it because I had asked for a novel by a Man Booker shortlist author.  The author, Aravind Adiga, actually won the Man Booker in 2008 for his first novel, The White Tiger.  Adiga was born in Madras (new Chennai) India in 1974; after achieving his secondary school certificate, he emigrated with his family to Australia, where he graduated from high school in Sydney.  He graduated, next, from Columbia University in 1997 and subsequently studied English literature at Magdelan College, Oxford.  He began his business career as a financial journalist with the Financial Times, Money and Time before becoming freelance.

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Aravind Adiga

Selection Day is a book focused on Indian cricket and its effect on a Mumbai slum family of two boys and their compulsive father.  Radha, the older brother, expects to fulfill his father’s dream of being selected for a top Indian team.  Tommy Sir, a coach/agent/promoter introduces the boys father, Mohan, to a ‘businessman’, Anand Mehta, who pays Mohan a stipend in return for a large slice of the boy’s earnings when they become famous.  Unexpectedly, Manju, the younger boy, is the better batsman, scoring 497 not out in a crucial contest.  Radha has a ‘weight transfer problem’ which is inhibiting his effectiveness as a batsman.  Enter a rival, Javed, a cocky, rebellious, rich kid who is also a fine batsman, and who happens to be gay.  Manju, at the center of the story, is his older brother’s best friend and rival, and his father’s severest but respectful critic.  The younger batsman is torn between his admiration for Javed, and his reluctance to commit to an intimate relationship; and between careers in cricketing or in science.

Selection Day offers a rich mixture of conflicted, imperfect characters with whom the reader cannot help but empathize.  The setting of Mumbai is drawn with natural clarity; one feels truly present.  And without being a ‘book about cricket’, Selection Day, presents the culture, the mystique, the competitiveness of Indian youth critic captivatingly, without technical fussiness.  The dialogue is credible, but occasionally seems too tangential to lead the reader to any firm conclusions.  Perhaps, this is Mr Adiga’s intention with this novel: to make the point that, try as one might, there can never be the achievement of one’s ultimate dream.

This sense of failure seems to carry over into the two concluding parts of the novel: what happens after selection day and in the epilogue.  One cannot help but be engaged by the beautiful writing, the energy, and the unfolding future in the lead up to selection day.  The writing is as good, but the energy and the future have dissipated after selection day.  Perhaps this novel could feel more whole, more consistent, if dreams could be scaled back rather than dispelled, and the energy and the future modestly re-directed.

Books as Therapy

The November 7th issue of Time Magazine has an article Read a Novel: it’s just what the doctor ordered, written by Sarah Begley.   Ms Begley is a staff writer for Time; she writes book reviews and culture stories for the magazine.  She has worked at Newsweek, The Daily Beast and Hearst Magazines.  She lives in the New York City area and is a graduate of Vassar College.

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Sarah Begley

She says, “the latest round of research on the benefits of literature focuses on how it improves not our IQ but our EQ.”  Researchers at the New School for Social Research found a link between ‘theory of mind’ (the ability to know what a person is thinking or feeling) and reading a passage of literary fiction (as distinguished from popular fiction).  Ms Begley continues, “Maria Eugenia Panero of Boston College says it is ‘hard to know whether reading literary fiction increases theory of mind or if people who naturally have a higher theory of mind are more drawn to literary fiction'”.

Ms Begley reports that a 2012 study at Ohio State University had undergraduates read different versions of a story in which a protagonist overcomes challenges (car trouble, bad weather, long lines, etc.) in order to vote.  Those who read a version of the story which led them to identify strongly with the character were more likely to vote in a real election a few days later: 65% reported having voted as compared to 29% of those who read a less relatable version of the story.  The story did affect the behaviour of some readers.

Bibliotherapy, which involves the prescription of novels to ‘cure life’s ailments’, is practices at the School of Life in London.  Ella Berthoud, an artist, and Susan Elderkin, a novelist, are friends from their Cambridge days when they left books for each other to deal with the crisis of the week: be it romance, work stress, or whatever.  Now, while they are not trained at therapists, their clients pay £100 to spend 50 minutes with them, in person or via Skype.  The clients fill out a questionnaire about what they like to read and what is going on in their lives.  “The bibliotherapist makes an ‘instant prescription’ at the end of the session and then sends a list of six to eight books and the reasons for the recommendation a few days later.  They say the feedback is 99% positive.”

Ms Begley concludes: “The science behind reading for mental health is limited, but researchers like Panero are eager to continue exploring the benefits.  ‘I think we all have some intuitive sense that we get something from fiction’, Panero says.  ‘So in our field we’re interested in saying – well, what is it that we’re getting?’  Even the greatest novel cannot cure clinical depression, erase post-traumatic stress or turn an egomaniac into a self-denying saint.  But it might ease a midlife crisis or provide comfort in a time of grief.  As Elderkin says, it’s natural for readers to find it’satisfying when people come up with ‘proof’ of something which they’ve always felt to be true.'”

As for me, I certainly subscribe to the theories presented by Ms Begley in her article.  That is why I write novels like Seeking Father Khaliq.

Review: The Last Confession of Thomas Hawkins

I bought this book – an historic novel – in a Waterstones bookstore because I had nothing to read at that moment and it looked interesting.  Its author is Antonia Hodgson who grew up in Derby and studied English at the University of Leeds.  Her first novel, The Devil in Marshalsea, won the 2014 Historical Dagger Award.  Ms Hodgson lives in London, where she is an editor.

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Antonia Hodgson

The Last Confession of Thomas Hawkins is set in a rather down-market section of Georgian London.  Its principal character, Thomas Hawkins is a ‘gentleman’ who killed a man in self-defense in prison, and throughout the story is under threat of being hung for murder.  There are several intertwining plots.  One involves a rather loathsome neighbour who is a member of the Society for the Reformation of Manners (a pathological moralist) and whose own morals permit him to consort with prostitutes and to beat his children.  The neighbour is suddenly dead.  Who killed him?  Thomas, one of the children, the apprentice, the son of a notorious gang?  Another plot involves King George’ mistress who is also a lady in waiting to Queen Charlotte.  This Henrietta Howard (who was a real person) is a pawn in the struggle of her very evil, estranged husband to extort money from the king.  The queen, also a real person, is caught in the middle and manages to capture Thomas as her rook to defeat the black knight, Charles Howard.  To keep things going, there is Kitty, the pretty and libidinous girlfriend of Thomas.

There is plenty of action in this rather engaging tale which moves along at a frenetic pace with many twists and turns along the way.  The characters are well-developed and likable or despicable; the dialogue is terse and credible.  The Covent Garden area of London is well described in physical and moral terms, but it was difficult to picture oneself in the setting.  It is not just a familiarity with the Covent Garden of today that blocked – to some extent – the credibility of the scene; it was more that at a feeling level one is somewhat remote. Having said this, one has to admire the depth of Ms Hodgson’s research into the times, the issues and the characters.  There are plenty of surprises in The Last Confession of Thomas Hawkins – they certainly keep the reader engaged – but sometimes the events seemed a little too contrived.  For example, the events around the ambush of Henrietta’s carriage by her husband, and the conclusion where Thomas is sent on a new mission by the queen.  The cockfight and the duel of the female gladiators, while authentic and interesting, added little to the story line.

For those who like a historical novel with an anchor in truth, one with many fascinating twists and turns, with important, stand-out characters, and a good helping of mystery, The Last Confession of Thomas Hawkins is the novel for you!

Review: The Satanic Verses

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I decided to read this novel by Salman Rushdie because I had not read any of his work, because this particular novel is famous, and because of my interest in better understanding Islam.  The novel is famous for the fatwa issued by the Ayatollah Khomeini calling for the death of Rushdie for having committed blasphemy and for mocking the Islamic faith.   There was a bounty of £2.8 million on Rushdie’s head and several failed assassination attempts; others associated with the novel were not as fortunate: Hitoshi Igarashi the Japanese translator, was stabbed to death on 11 July 1991, and a number of attempts were made on the lives of others.  The novel was published in 1988, and it was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, but won the Whitbread Award for novel of the year. The fatwa was issued on 14 February 1989.  In the UK, 13 Muslim barristers drafted an indictment for the High Court attempting to justify a charge of blasphemy.  This attempt failed and blasphemy is no longer an offense under English law. For years, Rushdie lived at no fixed abode under Special Branch protection.  In 1998, Iran issued a conciliatory statement and Rushdie declared he would no longer live in hiding.   The Iranian state news agency reported in 2006 that the fatwa would remain in place permanently since fatwas can only be rescinded by the person who first issued them, and Khomeini had since died.

In the context of blasphemy, it is worth a brief description of the origin of the term ‘satanic verses’.  Muhammad was living in Mecca at the time and he was experiencing difficulty persuading powerful Meccans to accept that he was the prophet of God.  There is a theory – repeated in Rushdie’s novel – that, as a concession to these men, he gave brief permission for prayer to three popular idols.  What is certain is that Muhammad originally recited several verses naming the idols, praising them and indicating that they should not be neglected.  Muhammad then inserted three replacement verses which say that the idols are only ‘names’ and that ‘God revealed no authority for them’.  His explanation for the change was that Satan had managed to slip in the verses without him knowing it.

In the novel, Muhammad (called Mahound) comes across as a weak, indecisive individual who uses religion for his own benefit.  But the sequences in the novel involving Mahound are contained in the dreams of the character, Gibreel Farishta, who is mentally ill and who believes that he has become the archangel Gabriel, so these characterisations cannot be said to represent the author’s personal views.

The central plot of the novel is that two Indian Muslim actors fall from the sky over the English Channel when the flight they are on is blown up.  Miraculously, they both survive, and they take on the personalities of the archangel Gabriel (Gibreel Farista) and the devil (Saladin Chamcha).  Each of them has difficulty being accepted in London, each finds to a prior love, and each returns to his previous occupation.  Chamcha seeks revenge on Farista for having deserted him after their fall from the sky, and he stokes Farista’s pathological jealousy, destroying his love relationship.  Farista realises what his colleague has done and he forgives him.  Nonetheless, Farista kills his lover, Alleluia Cone, and commits suicide.  Chamcha returns to India and is reconciled to his dying father.

The novel – at 547 pages – has a great deal beyond this simple plot, including dream sequences involving the prophet Mahound.  There are also sequences involving relationships of the primary characters with lovers, friends and acquaintances.

This is not an easy book to read.  The sentences are long, sometimes complex, and the references to characters, places and things unfamiliar.  There is one sentence 146 words long.  Being somewhat familiar with Islamic history, I recognised some to the dream characters, but I could have benefited from a working knowledge of Indian mythology.  It is also not easy to follow what is going on: is this part of a dream or reality?  Having said that, I did find much of the writing uniquely engaging.

The feelings one encounters in reading the book are doubt bordering on hopelessness with some offsetting glimpses of humour.  The doubt has to do with the purpose of life, religion, acceptance as an individual, and perception vs reality.

 

 

The Book is No Longer Doomed!

In case you didn’t see it, there was an article in The Daily Telegraph last month: ‘A New Chapter as Sales of Print Books Recover’, and it goes on to say:

“. . . Reports of the death of the traditional book have been greatly exaggerated, according to the definitive annual survey of the industry.  The Publishers Association study (UK) revealed sales of print books are rising while digital sales are down for the first time since the invention of the e-reader.  Experts say the claim the ‘physical book is doomed’ can ‘finally be refuted’.

“Stephen Lotinga, the Publishers Association chief executive said: ‘Those who made predictions about the death of the book may have underestimated just how much people love paper’.

“This year’s annual report shows physical book sales of £2.76 billion in 2015, up from £2.75 billion in 2014.  Digital sales dropped from £563 million to £554 million, the first year-on-year fall since 2011 when the association started measuring e-book sales.  The change has been attributed to readers realising the pleasure to be taken in a physical book, as well as the popularity of lifestyle non-fiction that does not translate well to digital.  Among those are adult colouring books, which have seen a boom in the last year, along with cookery books and retro humour such as the spoof How to . . . Ladybird series, which proved popular at Christmas.

“Hardback versions of much-hyped new works such as Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman also proved best sellers, along with cult novels such as The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins.

“Joanna Prior, managing director of Penguin General Books, said: ‘Both the increase (in physical book sales)and decrease (in digital sales) are too small . . . for us to make any claims for big shifts in consumer behaviour or make predictions for what lies ahead.  But I do think any suggestion that the physical book is doomed can now be definitively refuted.’

I, for one, am pleased to see these results.  In the first place, I have never been able to convince myself to read a digital book.  For me, having real book in my hands and being able to turn the pages is the essence of comfort in reading.  When I was doing a lot of driving, I found that audio books were a much better form of entertainment on a long drive than listening to the radio, so I was a regular user of the audio books section of the local library.  In fact, when I stopped taking long trips by car, I wanted to read the Qur’an.  I downloaded a copy to my iPod and listened to in when I was in the gym.  (Now, when I’m in the gym, I watch BBC News, and, occasionally, listen to country music.  I find the activity in the gym too distracting to concentrate on a good, new novel.)

Secondly, I get a sense of personal satisfaction from producing a physical book: one that I can hold in my hands of give to a friend.  And, finally, author royalties tend to be better – per unit sold – for physical rather than electronic books.