Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Gluttony..

Every so often, I will put myself on what can only be described as an "author-glut" diet. This is of questionable health value - I'd probably have to admit its actually injurious to health. However, it provides great mental & intellectual satisfaction. Howeve, pursue at your own risk. I claim no responsibility or liability for you following this regime.

Essentially the "author-glut" diet requires you to get your hands onto as many books by the same author as you can. You then have to spend every waking minute that you're not legally required to spend at work reading these books. If you choose to be a weakling and find someone who only ever wrote the one novel, you're a disgrace to the people who read this blog and should never come back. Try to find someone who's written at least seven or eight big books - Turgenev is a good one, or even Tolstoy.

To be perfectly honest, Russian realist literature does get me down, so my more memorable diets have included Ondaatje, Pamuk, Atwood, Soueif & Kadare. My most recent glut was supposed to be Murakami, but things didnt' quite end up going according to plan.

You see, I've read almost every book that Haruki Murakami has ever written and has been translated into Japanese. The one that I hadn't read was his older collection of short stories, The Elephant Vanishes. Given that I'd started my Murakami life with Norwegian Wood, moving on swiftly to Sputnik Sweetheart and The Wind Up Bird Chronicle, I thought that a good Murakami glut would take me around 3 weeks of intense reading - on the tube, in the bathroom, before (or on many nights, instead of) sleeping. But I decided to start with The Elephant Vanishes, so that if I found it unsatisfying, at least I could prioritise the remaining reading list so that I ended up with the best one (or just my favourite).

However, in true Murakami style, The Elephant Vanishes proved the wrong book to start with. Simply because there are so many glimpses of his future work that you sort of lose all interest in reading those works again. For example, there is a short story in The Elephant Vanishes that is, basically, an abridged version of the start of The Wind Up Bird Chronicle. And there's another story about a man whose sister is marrying a boring person called ... (wait for it)... Noboru Watanabe! (If you don't get the significance of this name, then why are you even bothering to read what I'm writing about Murakami? It's like trying to figure out what Fanon is all about without knowing about French colonisation of Africa).

So surprised was I at this turn of events that I had to cancel the Murakami glut even before I was through one single book. Now this is a serious occurrence - I have never given up on a glut diet before, and to quit when so early in the race is quite distressing.

I was out of sorts for a while - for those of you who don't know me, I tend to be competitive to an extreme. As such, by quitting so early, I had failed to match my earlier performances, which is never good for someone so competitive! However, some analysis of what the Murakami incident revealed helped me recover from some of the distress.

The basic reason behind an author glut is to try to digest as much of a single author's work in as short a time span as possible. This is possibly the only way (in my own head) of absorbing the "true" voice of the writer, by stripping away all of the flourishes in the writing that is placed there, either by the author or in some cases through dexterous editors. You'll notice that I am very interested in the idea of a unique "voice". This is something that I believe is inherent in every person - it is perhaps a more structuralist viewpoint, but I think that each of us develops a voice that is constrained by and also engendered by the circumstances of our lives. This experiential voice is itself a heterogeneous construct, built up from our social, political & economic realities. However, what I'm interested in when I begin an author glut is to isolate the true "voice" that is within a writer, and that is possibly not apparent from reading one book, or indeed many books, but at leisure.

The key word here is leisure. If we allow ourselves too much time when reading a book, i.e. when you read it because you want to read a book, we end up contaminating our perception of the author's voice with our own constructs, preconceptions and realities. For example, if you read Eco's Foucault's Pendulum at leisure (and this is a book that you can either read in a single sitting or over two months with a hefty encyclopaedia) you can spend time thinking about the student protest described by Casaubon. You can reflect on what the student protest is really about. Depending on your reality, you can be led to think about why students tend to veer towards leftist ideologies when young, only to become devout conservatives when they age a bit and are sucked into the capitalist structures that fund our existences. This might lead you to thik about the student protests you participated in as a college student ("VC ki tanashaahi nahin chalegi!" or possibly, "Hey Hey LBJ...") and then you might think about that cute girl with the banner whom you so desperately wanted to talk to, and were just about to before the water cannons came around and you lost sight of her while running for cover from the stinging water jets. (What is it about water cannons ANYWAY!?)

So the end result is that you started reading up about Casaubon's chance encounter with Belbo at the student march, and by the time you've gone back you've potentially subconsciously inferred that Eco himself might have seen a pretty girl while marching through the streets of Milan in the 60s. Hence you've contaminated his voice, without doing so consciously. I mean, hey - its human, and we all do that.

Perhaps what I'm trying to achieve when I enter into an author glut is too complicated. It might be so much easier to study the author's life and figure out what this "real" voice is from there. Hey, why not just ASK the writer straight?

But you see, that's the point. I'm NOT interested in the writer as a human being. It may sound really harsh, but the only reason I care that there are writers on this world isn't because I know them - I don't know them any better than I know a strange starving child in Somalia, or an oil rig worker in Venezuela (or that idiot who has my dream job in M&A). The only relationship I want to have with a writer is that of a reader and a book. I don't essentially care if James Joyce suffered from Parkinson's or if Charlotte Bronte died from tuberculosis. I'm really only interested in what Ullysses is like, or if Jane Eyre was written truly as Charlotte Bronte meant it to be.

Perhaps its opinionated to assume this, but I think that an author glut helps me get to the core of a book. It's the random sampling theory (or more spefically, the Weak Law of Large Numbers) applied to literature. When you read enough of a single author's canon, you are able to start tending towards a central voice that exists in all works produced by that writer. The speed of reading, while adding a definite edge to the exercise, also helps to avoid contaminating that voice with our own perceptions.

Okay - enough about this.....I need to go back to Murakami! :)

2 comments:

gwei_mui@yahoo.com said...

Hi,

I have been doing my own version of your author glut and my disabling obsession with Murakami has resulted in me googling him at work. In fact, I sometimes think I am actually falling in love with Murakami, or at least the protagonist that he presents as.

I also think I read everything in the wrong order (starting with Wind Up). I spoke to a friend in Japan who said the main problem is that prior to the 'Life/Death' series which includes Kafka and Wind Up, there was an introductory novel released only in Japan (and has since never been translated) which is the key to fully understanding the series. Have you heard anything about this?

The Buddha Smiled said...

Hi Gwen,

Falling in love with a fictional character has got to be rough!

More seriously, I have to admit, I haven't heard anything about the novel you mention. It might be worthwhile trying to contact Jay Rubin, who is a Murakami expert and has also translated quite a few of his works into English - perhaps he has a clue?

If you do find out, let me know!

Best,

TBS