Archive for March, 2010

March 31, 2010

While on the subject of Messrs. Tolkien and Lewis

Here’s an extract from something else I’ve been reading.

[Alan] Garner … was not an English student: his subject was Classics, and his academic ambition the Chair of Greek. However, he was a member of Lewis’ college and his tutor, Colin Hardie, was an Inkling and a friend of both Lewis and Tolkien: “I’ve no doubt that my tutor talked about things that C.S. Lewis had said the night before.” Garner’s own contact with Lewis was of a fairly unorthodox kind: “I practised abseiling from my room one dark night, and put my bare toes on the bald head of C.S. Lewis, who was leaning against the wall for reasons of his own. He yelped and ran.” As for Tolkien, Garner attended his “bravura demonstrations of Beowulf” out of interest, and was deeply impressed. “He would walk up and down and declaim it, and I used to go to these performances. That’s when I first heard English, and I was thrilled by simply the drama and the music of it.” On the other hand, Garner records that “I once heard him argue that modern English was not an appropriate medium for literature. It was interesting to hear such an intelligent man talk such rubbish.”

Abseiling. Oh Alan Garner.
March 30, 2010

Ethics for Reviewers

…And, even after the two men had grown apart, [C.S Lewis] happily fulfilled a promise to the publisher of The Lord of the Rings to “do all in my power to secure for Tolkien’s great book the recognition it deserves.” That included providing a back-cover blurb, two (unsigned) rave reviews in newspapers, and urgent recommendations to all of his correspondents and friends.

Not trying to criticise Lewis or Tolkien here (it is generally obvious when I am criticising either of them), just a wide eyed comment at how different things were “in the old days”. A reviewer who wrote unsigned rave reviews of their friends’ (or former friends’) books now would presumably receive plenty of criticism.
March 29, 2010

Cognitive Dissonance

(Click for the whole comic – Hark! A Vagrant is genius)

It seems someone has discovered a fragment of a manuscript by Claire Clairmont – Mary Shelley’s stepsister who had an affair with Byron and possibly one with P.B Shelley as well. In the manuscript, she calls them both “monsters”, and depicts them as pretty amoral where relationships were concerned (see linked article for quotes). Byron sounds particularly vile by her account.

I am rather irrationally a Byron fangirl. I think he’s underrated as a poet, had by far the most interesting life of the Romantics, and as ineffectual as he may have been in the event, I’ve always liked that he would have gone to war for Greece (did the Greeks welcome his help though? I’ve never seen evidence either way). Plus he was nice looking.

But I’ve never been under any delusions about his private life. Nothing I’ve ever read about him has even appeared to hint that he was anything other than an asshole to his women (I know less about any romantic relationships with men). Likewise Shelley, who I’m not as fond of, has always been presented to me as rather a tool, though occasionally a stupendous poet.

So I’m a little baffled at that Observer column I’ve linked to above. What “moral reputation” does this demolish? Why do the commentators on the piece seem so genuinely surprised? Have I been living in a parallel universe all these years where everyone knows these things? [I recently read an article by a book reviewer who expressed surprise that Tolkien and Lewis had been friends. This did remind me that what I consider "common knowledge" is frequently only common in certain circles. But surely Byron and Shelley are pretty mainstream?]

I’m also fascinated by how invested Dalya Alberge and all the people she quotes seem to be in discrediting Clairmont – both article and comments have “bitches, man” all over them. Alberge describes Clairmont as “an embittered old woman” (“embittered” is hardly surprising, and I suspect “old” is standing in here for undesirable). Professor Kelvin Everest and Sir Michael Holroyd both hurriedly remind you-the-reader that Claire threw herself at Byron. I’m not sure whether we’re expected to read this as meaning that she asked for it, or that she was desperate and therefore ought to be grateful to him for his attentions to her.

But my favourite thing about that article so far is this comment from someone who wants to remind us that Byron was really, really hot, omg and remained hot even after he was dead. Also, political correctness! is destroying the reputation! of really hot poets!
And that’s terrible.

March 28, 2010

The Perplexity of Hariya Hercules

I’m a bit disappointed by Penguin’s decision to publish Robert A Hueckstedt’s translation of Manohar Shyam Joshi’s Hariya Hercules Ki Hairani without any sort of introduction or context. In a way it’s nice that they’re treating it as they would any other book, without making strange zoo animals of books translated from Indian languages. Still, it is a translation, and I’d like to know more about it than the cover and flaps tell me. I should not have to resort to Wikipedia for information as basic as the original Hindi title.

However, that it exists at all is an excellent thing and Penguin are to be congratulated for this. I had no idea what it was when I bought it a few weeks ago; I vaguely recognised the author’s name and thought the title was funny (though the Hindi title is arguably funnier).

The book starts off as the comic tale of Hariya, a dutiful son. The last of his father’s five sons his primary occupation is looking after his father, a task which includes (this is an immensely scatological book) helping him to defaecate with the help of rubber gloves. Hariya tolerates his father’s constant abuse of him without comment, does not seem to mind being considered an idiot, and is not perplexed at all. Until, due to a strange set of coincidences and possible mishearings he comes to believe that he (and everyone else) has a double in a place called Goomalling in Australia, that Tibetan monks are somehow mixed up in it all, and that his family is cursed because his father stole something from said monks.

So when his father dies, leaving behind a trunk full of treasure, Hariya decides it is his duty to return this to those from whom it was stolen. Fighting off neighbours who think he’s insane, a nephew with vested interests, and various others, he embarks upon an epic quest to find the monks to whom the contents of the trunk belong. In this journey he is accompanied by a rather unreliable female family member who had years ago starred in a number of pornographic photographs with Hariya’s father.

It’s all very silly.

It’s also very clever and very postmodern, and absolutely hilarious. Hueckstedt’s translation is a good one – while I haven’t read the original (and I’m thinking I will soon) the tone is just right, he’s captured the elaborate, idiomatic style in a way that seems authentic to me, at least. Marvellous book, and I plan to read T’ta Professor (the other translation of a Manohar Shyam Joshi book that Penguin have published recently) soon.

March 27, 2010


From this interview with Chabon:

In a more equivocal way (one of his chapters on this is called “Hypocritical Theory”), he finds himself worrying about the exploitation of fart-and-snot humour by profit-minded grown-ups. “Tropes and jokes that adults never would have gone near, and would have disdained to traffic in not that long ago,” he says, “are now actively employed to snare children’s attention, and ultimately their income.” What bothers him isn’t the jokes and tropes themselves but “the co-opting of kids’ consciousness”: naughty playground rhymes should be an adult-free zone.

March 27, 2010

Practically Marzipan: In which I am revealed to be a fraud TamBrahm…

…rejecting a symbol of our culture almost as central, as relevant, as thayir sadam.
In my defence, I cannot help it. Also, I had a traumatic childhood.

[A version of this was published in today's New Indian Express]


One of the few real problems I have with my cultural heritage is my extended family’s love affair with jasmine. We love the stuff. Everyone wears it in their hair at every opportunity, and when a cousin is so insensitive as to cut her hair short the major protests that arise involve the difficulty of properly attaching mallipoo in the future. There are crushed, dead flowers on people’s pillows in the morning, and sometimes more fall out when hair is being brushed. I think I might like them if they weren’t so omnipresent. Even in Delhi, where most people walk around flowerless, three huge jasmine plants grow on the terrace and provide a constant, if not huge, supply to those who want them. Sometimes they are picked and then put in the fridge to keep fresh, and this is almost the worst of all because the smell permeates everything. It is, I suppose, possible to think of jasmine as a pleasant smell in most circumstances. When the items that smell of jasmine include your slice of left-over pizza and your bottled water, this is no longer the case.

As a result, my dislike of the smell of jasmine has grown intense. It’s a pity, because I do like looking at flowers in other people’s hair (while they’re fresh and alive, at least). And while I don’t mind picking up other people’s dead flowers, I find myself coughing and choking at anything that smells intensely of jasmine. A couple of years ago an unfortunate set of circumstances led to some jasmine perfume being spilled on a book I was reading. Unable to read the book for several days as I could barely breathe near it, I finally resorted to desperate measures and stuck the book in the microwave, hoping to toast the scent out. I can find no reasonable scientific explanation for the fact that it actually did alleviate the smell.

While one flower smell effectively cuts me off from a huge chunk of my heritage, two others provide strange links to it. Roses have a definite claim to being part of Our Culture, as evinced by the quantities of rose attar used by our ancestors. The smell is slightly spicy, deep and not particularly sweet. It is as complex as (and far more pleasant than) most perfumes. I’ve never encountered actual roses that smelled quite like that, and if I did I’d by them in an instance.

The other flower I refer to connects me to a chunk of my heritage that is rather more humble. It’s the smell of violets. I do not think I have ever seen a violet flower actually growing and alive, and all I really know of them is that they’re kind of purple and kind of shy. I have certainly never smelled one, as far as I know. But they can be sugared and put on cakes, too. I’m not sure how big their role is in the confectionery industry as a whole, and whether they are a common ingredient in many sweets. All I know is that when I was washing my hands with violet-scented soap a few years ago I breathed in and felt like I had come home – I was a five year old in a sweet shop again. I do not remember actually loving or even noticing this smell when I was a child, but now it means any number of things to me. Perhaps one day jasmine will do the same.


Oh look, I am only one of a generation of Degenerate Youth. Who knew?

March 26, 2010

More F words

Earlier today Adam Roberts mentioned on twitter that he was at a primary school production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat. He said that the school had chosen to change some of the lyrics in the Potiphar song – instead of inviting Joseph to “come and lie with me, love”, Potiphar’s wife now desired him to “come and have some tea, love”.

My own primary school changed the line to “come and BE with me love”, but did this merely by crossing out the word “lie” and substituting “be” on the sheets of lyrics. Amazingly, we caught on, but beyond a few giggles and some puzzlement there was nothing.

However, a year or so later I was in a choir doing Oliver! and whoever was in charge decided to modify the song “I’d do anything“. In the song (skip this bit if you know anything at all about musicals) the Artful Dodger is claiming that he would, in fact, do anything for Nancy, and she is giving him lists of specific tasks to see if this is the case. So at one point, she asks him if he would “Even fight my Bill?” to which he replies “What, fisticuffs?”

Unfortunately, whichever adult it was who decided this sort of thing thought that “fisticuffs” was not a word s/he wanted a bunch of kids to sing. I don’t know whether it was considered to be too difficult a word, whether the implication of violence was the problem (surely not) – but we were condemned to sing that line as “what? … *empty space, filled up by some la la laing*” for no discernable reason.

Result: for many years I thought that “fisticuffs” was a dirty word and have never been quite able to rid myself of the association.

Fisticuffs. Giggle.

March 23, 2010

YfL5: Saussure and Klingon

What do you do when you want to talk about Tolkien and Trekkies? Make a silly, cod-academic reference to Saussure. Obviously.

An edited version was published in Monday’s EdEx, etc.


Klingon: An alien life form from the Star Trek books, television series and movies, origially the enemies of the Federation. Also the Klingon language, tlhIngan Hol, a constructed language invented by Mark Okrand especially for the Star Trek movies of the 1980s and Star Trek: The Next Generation TV series. (Urban Dictionary)

There is a moment, in one of the Star Trek movies (The Undiscovered Country) where a Klingon is supposedly quoting from Shakespeare’s Hamlet as it is written in his own language. He remarks to the (mostly human) crew of the Starship Enterprise that Shakespeare is far better “in the original Klingon”. It is only relatively recently that I learnt that there does exist a Klingon Hamlet. It is delightful – not only did the people behind the series go to the trouble to create a whole new language for this alien race, but other people joined in to translate Shakespeare into this wholly made-up language, all for their own amusement. Knowing Klingon serves no useful purpose, in the sense that language usually does, in helping people to communicate. But it’s the sort of thing that people clearly enjoy knowing.

Another constructed fictional language that I’m very fond of is Quenya, one of the languages of the Elves in J.R.R Tolkien’s Middle-earth books. Language lies at the heart of Tolkien’s universe; the many languages that the people he created speak were developed alongside the world itself. Tolkien was a language geek, apparently inventing his first language at age thirteen. He seems to have been fascinated by how things fit together, how grammar works; the general structure of language. And Middle-Earth is obviously the richer for it.

Of course, that is not all that language is. The Swiss linguist Saussure in the earlier part of the twentieth century drew a distinction between two concepts in language, “langue” and “parole”. By Langue he referred to the system of rules by which a language is goverened; Parole indicated the relatively flexible ways in which language was used and meaning created within those set boundaries. Of course this demarcation is somewhat reductive, but I think that fictional languages spoken by fictional people will only ever work at the level of Langue. Parole requires that people be present, actively using the language. If every Star Trek fan, or every Tolkien fan in the world were to display the levels of obsession required to learn a technically pointless language (quite a number of fans of both sorts have obviously done this and I think it’s rather wonderful) and to communicate with each other by this means, we might have the beginnings of something pretty fantastic. It’ll never happen.

And that is why, ultimately, I have no interest in learning either language. I’m delighted that both exist, but what really charms me about languages will always be the Parole aspect of things. I require that language be changeable and frequently ungrammatical and full of swearing and obsolete words and slang. The Elves would probably never come up with a rich tradition of Quenya slang, and that is genuinely unfortunate (I suspect the Klingons would manage slang quite well).


I seem to have gotten into the habit of praising profanity every week. I must consider this further.

March 19, 2010

I’m a believer

A couple of weeks ago I was in my car and someone came and tapped on my window and left me this card. I was pleased by it and showed it to people then took it home and promptly lost it. Today I found it again, and I’m feeling much more secure about my life and the world generally.

The back of the card reads as follows:

Person Got Cheated In Love Once Come And Meet 100% Solution only in 10 Hours , As You Wish, Will Be As

Expert In Super Nature Knowledge As:

  • Love Marriage
  • Job Business
  • Marriage Problems
  • Child Birth Problems
  • Various Magic
  • Serious Problems
  • Relief Speciality
  • Get Love of Your Choice

How do I know Guru Sultan Bangali is not a fraud? Besides the fact that he has given me !!!HIS PROMISE!!!, of course. It turns out that he is able to be in multiple places at once – under a different name he has been operating his business in Gurgaon. Only a person of great spiritual fortitude could survive a daily commute from Kalkaji to Gurgaon. Plus, he has business cards, not cheap pink leaflets.

I have great faith in the guru. Trust him with your Serious Problems, and as you wish will be as.

March 18, 2010

Yellow Blue Tibia Bullets Doux

Everything I thought about Yellow Blue Tibia was jumbled up in my head so I made bullet points. And then it was still chaotic. So I made a stupid pun for a title (much as Roberts seems to have done!) and here is what I think. I think.

  • Long before I read the book I’d been told that it involved Stalin collecting a group of science fiction writers and ordering them to create fictional aliens that he could unite the Soviet Union against (I don’t think this is a spoiler, every review has mentioned this). A few people were a bit dismissive of Stalin as Adrian Veidt, but I thought it’d be rather awesome. As it happened, that section of the book was a relatively small part of the actual plot. Still really good though.
  • I suspect a good chunk of this plot was in there for how cool it would be. I have no complaints with this as a method of writing.
  • I particularly love the writing in the earlier sections of the book – it’s so fantastically overblown. There is, for example, this wonderful moment where the writers are seriously discussing the politics of these hypothetical aliens – according to the party line, only communists could be efficient enough to invent interplanetary travel. And do they really want to fight communists?
  • I spent a lot of time trying to decide whether I wanted to think of this as history or alt-history and still haven’t come to any conclusions.
  • The book feels translated (I am not in a position to comment on whether it feels like it’s translated from Russian, but it certainly has the feel of some translations from various Indian languages that I’ve read). It’s quite an achievement, and really impressed me.
  • How much fun did Roberts have writing this book? I’ve read a few negative reviews of Yellow Blue Tibia, and I acknowledge the rightness of much of what they said, but the sheer joy in this book was infectious as far as I was concerned, and it made most criticisms I had seem insignificant.
  • But if he’d written this book about my country and used, say, the Bhopal Gas tragedy, I don’t know if this whole being swept away by joy could have worked so well.
  • … I don’t think he would have written this about India. Russia* and Britain have a very different sort of historical relationship than India and Britain – whether that should put India off limits in certain ways (and equally, whether it shouldn’t do the same with Russia are bigger questions that I’m honestly not sure what I think about.
  • Catherynne Valente’s post about this book makes most of the criticisms I could not avoid (and there are some that I did not see, but I defer to her superior knowledge of Russian culture). I think a couple of things she says might be mitigated by the fact that this book has been written as if it were a translation: like the “x”s in the Russian alphabet thing, which I read as using “x” not as a letter, but in its capacity within English as an unknown quantity. I can readily imagine a translator substituting the symbol that performed a similar function. “Konsty”, though? Seriously?
  • The fatphobia thing. It seemed very clear to me when I read it. It’s clear from Roberts’ comments on Valente’s post that he wasn’t going for that at all and is thinking seriously about the charge. I do think that when writing in a style as frequently OTT as this one, that letting in things like fatphobia may be even easier than usual unless you’re actively on guard.
  • On the whole: I loved it, I dogeared it, I called people up so I could quote from it, I’m glad it exists.

*I should add that a significant part of the action actually takes place in Ukraine.