24 March 2013

Boats on Land

This review first appeared in The Asian Review of Books.

How frequently we find ourselves profoundly unseated by the transience of it all, the impermanence of a life lived, the changing ways of the world. The Japanese have a term for it: mono no aware (literally: “the pathos of things”). Janice Pariat’s debut book, a collection of fifteen short stories called Boats on Land, grapples vividly with this sort of wistfulness. These are days quietly observed, reflections tucked away, fleeting impulses and stolen flashes unchained from the stillness of memory and set free into ephemera. What Pariat does is hunt these unwilling moments down with her wispy butterfly net of words and cast them down for permanence.

The opening story in the collection (“A Waterfall of Horses”) talks about just this quality of eternalness that the written word carries with it: “Once printed, the word is feeble and carries little power. It wrestles with ink and typography and margins, struggling to be what it was originally. Spoken. Unwritten, unrecorded. Old, they say, as the first fire. Free to roam the mountains, circle the heath, and fall as rain. We, who had no letters with which to etch our history, have married our words to music, to mantras, that we repeat until lines grow old and wither and fade away. Until they are forgotten and there is silence.”

Most of the stories are set in and around Shillong, and the landscape of Northeast India is stitched resplendently into the fabric of the tales. Positioned across a varied time span, from the 1800s to present day, each story is keenly aware of the passing of time, the particular beauty of forgetfulness, and the frightening tremors of change.

Many stories are sculpted into form by myth and magic, bordering almost on the paranormal and the gothic. There are ancient men who cause the downfall of their enemies with ka ktien, mantras that cause the sort of madness that cannot be contained; a doctor cures those who are possessed by thlen, the evil eye; a woman draws her husband back into her home with mysterious charms and echoes; there are dreams that liltingly merge into reality, visions that recall the unknowable, flickering spectres of spirits both good and evil. Pariat draws from Khasi folklore, gingerly ensconcing the tales in dark trickery and old traditions, and balancing them with the shifting forces of society, politics, and popular custom.

As one character struggles to understand a shadowy disappearance, he muses: “What does it take, I think, to have faith in things beyond the ordinary? Age? Childlike wonder? Is it right to cling so fiercely to the world? As they absorb my solitude, the silence of the distant hills and the drifting indifference of the clouds, I think of disappearances, the ones that surprise and those that don't. At first, I am steeped in sadness. Then I notice how the air fills with cicadas, the trees cast their trembling shadows on the water, the reeds bow in steady reverence, I realize that no one is truly ever gone. All voices are heard in a river's murmuring.”

There are youngsters who flirt with activism and clutch at identity, sharp-eyed old men who tell arching tales of ancient witchery, teenagers who listen to American rock music and ride motorcycles, young men who fly kites and interpret dreams, people who leave Shillong, but are inscrutably drawn back. Everywhere, there is change: “This town, according to my parents, with its constant unrest and wanton youth, was headed for nothing but disaster. They couldn’t understand it, where had it gone? The peaceful little place they’d grown up in, with its quaint British ways and pretty bungalows, its safe streets and pine-dappled innocence. They’d watched it transform before their eyes.”

Some of Pariat’s stories excavate the mystical and the vulnerable with nuanced, intense text, furtively capturing moods of displacement and stillness. In “Sky Graves,” Bah Hem undertakes a long and arduous journey at the behest of a boy who has eyes like his dead son. The title story is a revelatory coming-of-age tale that somehow steers clear of almost all growing-up clich├ęs. Elsewhere, “Laitlum” captures the unsettling precariousness of freedom through the fretful wonderings of an adolescent girl. In “19/87”, a Muslim tailor, who has witnessed years of growing intolerance, hovers uneasily between the ideas of home and belonging.

Some trudge along more sluggishly than others, woodenly reaching out for meaning. In “Pilgrimage,” a young woman finds wisdom and meaning agreeably dispensed to her by a shopkeeper; in “Embassy,” stories are smashed together, the significance of which is later delivered by a suitable punch line. Characters think and speak in abstract premonitions and extended metaphors and plot connives to create meaning. But these are rare instances that are quickly blurred by Pariat’s brilliance.

Mostly, there are characters who dissolve and stories that beguile, leaving faint echoes; they are mono no aware.

03 March 2013

Where there's a Will


This piece first appeared in The Hindu Literary Review.

Since the 19th Century, readers have wondered how William Shakespeare, with his grammar school education and mercantile roots, could have written so knowledgeably and eloquently on subjects ranging from politics and law to medicine and falconry – and some have come to the drastic explanation that, in fact, he could not have. In the last decade alone, authorship speculation has gained considerable attention, thanks especially to the internet. Aside from the Shakespeare Fellowship, the Shakespeare Oxford Society, and several other smaller groups that dedicate themselves to establishing that Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, was the true author of the poems and plays attributed to Shakespeare of Stratford, there also exists a bizarre online collective known as the Shakespeare Authorship Coalition that seeks to get signatures on a petition named “The Declaration of Reasonable Doubt,” which is aimed at establishing the field of Shakespeare’s authorship as an academic discipline by 2016, the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death.

In the spirit of sheer democratic inquiry, none of this sounds unreasonable. But the authorship question is problematic in more ways than scholars might care to admit. The elitist notion that the son of a tradesman could not have produced Shakespeare’s canon is reductive and dangerously snobbish. It speaks of epistemic biases and a paranoid need to uncover patterns that validate an existing worldview and accommodate the impulse that skill and talent are somehow connected to birth and education. The candidates repeatedly proposed as the true authors of Shakespeare amply demonstrate these toffee-nosed sentiments, as if to ask: how could the son of a glove-maker lay claim to plays and poems of such extraordinary literary merit? No, it must be an upper-class nobleman and not a Stratford tradesman who wrote them.

The Earl of Oxford is the most popular claimant for obvious reasons – he was highly educated, tremendously aristocratic, upwardly mobile, and well-versed in courtly life. Oxford, who may or not have been Queen Elizabeth’s illegitimate son, illicit lover, or both, also may or may not have fathered the Earl of Southampton through his union with the Queen. The problem is further compounded by the fact that Southampton is most likely the subject of 126 of Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets, which are addressed to a mysterious youth for whom, almost unambiguously, the poet has sexual feeling. If these theories are all to be believed, poor Oxford slept with his mother, who was also his sovereign, and fell in love with his son, who was also his half-brother. Oh, and somehow, in the midst of all this, he also managed to write the greatest collection of plays and poetry the English language has ever known.

The most obvious argument against Oxford should be that he died in 1604, before at least a dozen of Shakespeare’s plays were published. The Oxfordian claim is that his work was published posthumously. And yet, a play like Macbeth, which was clearly written in the aftermath of the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, stands overwhelmingly as evidence to the contrary – unless Oxford was able to predict the future as well.

Oxford did circulate some of his own poetry during his lifetime, and the difference in literary quality is unmistakable. Oxford is barely even able to master the iambic pentameter in his poetry, whereas Shakespeare has written entire plays in the meter. Oxford’s love poems show, as the author C. S. Lewis notes, “a faint talent,” but are “for the most part undistinguished and verbose.” In fact, computer-based studies that analyse metrical and textual styles of the two authors have shown that the odds of Oxford having written Shakespeare are lower than the odds of getting hit by lightning.

The bigger question that Oxford’s poetry gives rise to is not one of quality, though. Sycophants in the Queen’s court frequently referred to Oxford’s talents as a poet and a playwright, praise which Oxford graciously accepted. What then was his reason for writing far greater poetry under the anonymity of a pseudonym? Oxfordians have claimed that playwriting was a low art form that the nobility could not be seen to have dabbled in, but even if that were true, would Oxford not have wished to put his name to poetry as path-breaking as Venus and Adonis or the sonnets? Yet, almost two centuries of spurious scholarship have argued the Oxfordian cause, receiving support from such intellectuals as Mark Twain, Henry James, Sigmund Freud, and Orson Welles. But then, Mark Twain also believed that Queen Elizabeth was a man in drag.

The second-most popular candidate for authorship is Sir Francis Bacon. The earliest-known Baconian was an American playwright named, as luck would have it, Delia Bacon, who declared that Shakespeare of Stratford was a “stupid, illiterate, third-rate play-actor” who could not possibly have produced work of such “superhuman genius.” Her reasons for believing in Shakespeare’s stupidity, illiteracy, and poor acting skills stem from little more than her knowledge of his birth and breeding. While Francis Bacon was certainly a learned and brilliant writer, he is best-known for his empirical arguments. Nowhere in his writing do Bacon’s words flow with the kaleidoscopic vision of Shakespeare’s sublime imaginings.

More importantly, Bacon was a busy man indeed. He served as both Attorney General and Lord Chancellor of England and wrote innumerable essays. At no point during his hectic political and scientific career would he have had the time to write 37 plays, 154 sonnets, and two long poems. In the words of the scholar Richard Garnett, “Baconians talk as if Bacon had nothing to do but to write his play at his chambers and send it to his factotum, Shakespeare, at the other end of the town.”

Christopher Marlowe, another playwright born in the same year as Shakespeare, was murdered in a pub brawl in 1593, around the time when Shakespeare was becoming popular in London. Yet, the Marlovian theory of Shakespeare’s authorship holds that the young playwright, who also happened to work in espionage for the Crown, faked his own death, escaped to Europe, and continued to write under the pseudonym of Shakespeare – an actor whom he barely knew. Oddly enough, the Marlovian theory bears more literary merit than the Oxfordian or the Baconian theories; it is only Marlowe who displays the sort of skill that is comparable Shakespeare’s. But even here, snobbery persists. The Marlovian theory is generally given less attention than the other two – perhaps because he was the son of a Canterbury shoemaker.

One thing Marlowe, Oxford, and Bacon have in common is that they studied at Cambridge. Oxbridge condescension has persisted since Shakespeare’s days. The playwright Robert Greene wrote a pamphlet called Greene’s Groats-Worth of Wit, which refers to Shakespeare as “an upstart crow.” Greene’s fury at Shakespeare seems to be based on nothing more than the fact that Shakespeare went neither to Oxford nor to Cambridge. At a time when the London intellectual elite were dominated by a group called the University Wits (a group of 7 playwrights including Marlowe and Greene, all of whom had attended Oxbridge and were proud of it), Shakespeare took the theatre world by a veritable storm without the qualifications of an upper-class birth or an Oxbridge education. It was the sort of success that confounded his contemporaries – and continues to confound us. To respond to this phenomenon with doubt rather than admiration is both pompous and restrictive.

In ‘Anonymous’ a 2011 film that posited the Oxfordian theory with enough conviction for its producers (Sony Pictures) to distribute lesson plans in high schools and universities to broadcast the “truth” about the authorship of Shakespeare’s canon, the snobbery is even greater: young William of Stratford, who takes credit for Oxford’s work, is portrayed as an idiotic, money-grubbing, whoring drunkard, barely capable of stringing sentences together, almost as if to say that anyone without the pedigree of Oxford’s lineage, education, and wealth is not merely incapable of intellectual or artistic expression, but must also be a crass, unrefined boor. The film is a well-made romp through Elizabethan England, but can only be considered alternative history; in fact, any student of history or literature should easily be able to point out factual errors and logistical inconsistencies in almost every scene.

We of the gilded Dan Brown age are lovers of conspiracy theories. But the fact remains that at least two-thirds of Shakespeare’s work carries his name from first publication and almost all of the plays carry the name of his theatre company. The earliest known compilation of his plays (The First Folio) carries his name and a picture of him. Several of his contemporaries refer to Shakespeare of Stratford as one of the greatest writers of the age, including Ben Jonson, who was generally reluctant to offer praise of any kind to anyone. Why all the actors, writers, and theatre-lovers of an entire era would go out of their way to hide Oxford’s identity as the true author of Shakespeare even after his death is anybody’s guess. Did the Elizabethans construct this elaborate hoax to simply have a good laugh at future generations? It seems an unlikely scheme.

That the Oxfordian theory has persisted in careless defiance of any semblance of logic or reason is testimony to the feudal conception that the accomplishments of the petite bourgeoisie are to be treated with contempt and suspicion, that any middle-class aspiration to culture is anarchical and, therefore, a case of reactionary populism. But what great losses the world would suffer if we were to ignore the contributions of individuals without formal training or nobility of birth.

Over the years, the list of candidates for authorship has grown to read like a who’s who of Elizabethan England: the Earls of Derby, Essex, Pembroke, Southampton, and Salisbury; playwrights including Cervantes, Middleton, Fletcher, and Greene; and several women, notably Anne Hathaway (Shakespeare’s wife) and Queen Elizabeth. The list is laughable. What causes concern is the need to theorise on alternate authorship of the works of a writer who has arguably contributed more to world literature than any other writer ever has or probably ever will.

Then again, you only think I wrote this piece. For all you know, it might have been the Queen of England.

Recommended reading: Shapiro, James. Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010.