Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Hay Festival Kerala 2011 No.7 - Chandrahas Choudhury reveals 10 ways a novel can change your life

Novelist and reviewer Chandrahas Choudhury conducted the session


Chandrahas Choudhury is a working novelist He wished to discuss the ways in which novels work and his theme was: ten ways in which a novel can change your life.

Novels expand our awareness of sensual life. He read a passage from Suite Fran├žaise by Nemirovsky to bolster his point. Through a cat's eyes we are made aware of things beyond our ken. For instance, the sound of insect wings.

Novels teach us that many things happen, not for one reason, but for many reasons. It may depend on small things. The novel is by Asvagosha, called Handsome Nanda illustrates this point.

Novelists give us a sense of ourselves, affected and modified by our landscape. Taking Willa Cather's great novel, My Antonia, we see the landscape of the prairie powerfully evoked by Jim Borden, a 10-year old orphan. 

 Chandrahas Choudhury interacts with the audience in the Reading Room

Novels clarify that there is no one answer. There may be several answers, as in the Kurosawa film, Rasho Mon. Truth is diverse and multi-form. Orhan Pamuk's novel My Name is Red drives home that point. A mystery surrounds a murder.

Novels show much of our lives are lived in the imagination. The novel is Chekhov's The Kiss. A soldier in the novel has no wife, no experience of love or sensual pleasure, nobody to go home to after the war. Something happens and from that moment his mental life is transformed.

Novels give us interiority, leaving behind our mind, and entering other minds. No other form gives us as rich an understanding of human motivations. The novel is V. Grossman's Everything Flows. A guest arrives: should the host and his wife take him in or not? There are three minds at work, the narrator's, Nikolai's, and his wife's. Readers have to be willing to enter and live up to the invitation, to think.

The private lives of human beings, the kind of knowledge that comes about in the drama of our private lives is put in the open space in novels. CC read from the novel Santu by Bibhuti Bhusan Bandhyopadyay, a great novelist of the 20th century. One of the great pleasures of fiction is losing yourself in someone else, here in the mind of a child. 

Here's a fuller account ...

CC is a working novelist He wished to discuss the ways in which novels work and his theme was: for what purpose are you reading novels? What's in a novel?

He laid out his talk as ten ways in which a novel can change your life. Novels don't preach a message. But you can benefit by reading novels in a particular way, remaining alive to the ways in which they work on us, the readers.

Specimen 1: Novels expand our awareness of sensual life. They can make us use our sensual experience better. We see how much we are not aware of in the real world.
It's from Suite Fran├žaise by Nemirovsky. He was a Jew captured by the Nazis. He wrote at about 40 to 50 lines per page, wasting no space at all. The background is a rich French family fleeing to the countryside as the Nazis as they approach Paris. Albert, the cat in the novel is unconcerned by all this tumult.. But the cat is excited abut the world around him. Through his eyes we are made aware of things beyond our ken. For instance, the sound of insect wings. But everything the cat is watching is destroyed in one bomb burst.

Specimen 2: Novels teach us that many things happen, not for one reason, but for many reasons. It may depend on small things. Novels underscore the contingent nature of human existence.
The novel is by Asvagosha, called Handsome Nanda. It relates the story of a Buddhist monk by the half-brother who is not interested in Buddha at all. He wants to see Buddha as a duty and return at once to his wife. “Reverence for the Buddha drew Nanda ...”

Specimen 3: Novelist give us a sense of ourselves, affected and modified by our landscape.
It's Willa Cather's great novel, My Antonia. Jim Borden, a 10-year old, recently orphaned, is journeying to live with his grandmother out in the great plains of the West. “Continuously I shifted from under the buffalo hide ...” The landscape Jim sees is powerfully evoked, and he is affected by it, so far as to forget his loss.

There are two landscapes prominent: city, country. You see it in War and Peace, in Crime and Punishment. You can experience it in Tagore's Home and the World.

Specimen 4: There is no one answer. There may be several answers, as in the Kurosawa film, Rasho Mon. Truth is diverse and multi-form.
Orhan Pamuk, whom CC considers the greatest novelist writing, wrote My Name is Red. The artist in the story is hit by a blunt instrument and found dead. Mystery surrounds the incident. And 'Uncle' a character in the story is about to have the meaning of life revealed by God, but he has lost his hearing! At a critical moment the novel refuses to give an answer.

Specimen 5: Much of a person's life is lived in the imagination, although we get a picture of reality from newspapers and so on.
The novel is Chekhov's The Kiss. A soldier in the novel has no wife, no experience of love or sensual pleasure, nobody to go home to after the war. He is free. The something happens to Ryabovitch to churn it all around. He is invited to a masked ball, and has some leisure time. There he is kissed for the first time by a woman, not anyone he knows. “Something strange was happening to him ...” From that moment his mental life is transformed. Nothing real has changed in his life. But one incident opens out all the pleasures and dangers of the imagination.


Specimen 6: Novels give us interiority, leaving behind your mind, and entering other minds. No other form gives us an understanding of human motivations.
The novel is V. Grossman's Everything Flows. A person is sent to Stalin's gulag for 30 years. When his time is up he returns to Moscow, but does not recognise the city he grew up in. He will go to a cousin, Nikolai, who is an establishment person. N's wife dissuades Nikolai from hosting his cousin, for fear of others watching and knowing they are harbouring an ex-prisoner. The passage starts, “Nikolai Andreyvich was angry with his wife ...” and ends “ forgiving his wife, he forgave himself.”

There are three minds at work, the narrator's, Nikolai's, and his wife's. In the tiny space of this passage you have many minds. We even listen to a narrator thinking about a character's thinking. The novel has faith in the reader, to complete the meaning. The novel is only made known by the reader who reads it in a particular way. Readers have to be willing to enter and live up to the invitation, to think.

Specimen 7: The private lives of human beings is put in the open space – and we attain to the kind of knowledge that comes about through the drama of our own private lives.
The novel is Santu by Bibhuti Bhusan Bandhyopadyay, a great novelist of the 20th century. The passage chosen by CC begins, “ Santu wasn't at all overjoyed about ...” Dadu and Santu have a rift. The genius of this passage is what is left out. The bridge between the narrator and the character is left out. One of the great pleasures of fiction is losing yourself in someone else, here in the mind of a child. There is a magic in erasing the boundary between things. The reader is allowed for pages and pages to occupy other minds. You inhabit the thoughts of other fictional people, no less real for being fictional.

Manu Joseph does it in his novel Serious Men. “The country has become a video game ...”, he writes. It's comic but not wholly comic. The dialogue is layered. The problem is not acquiring or possessing someone. It is to figure out how to keep the relationship going for 30 years to come.

CC was short of time and asked the participants to read the rest from his handout.
 


1 comment:

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