Posts Tagged ‘India’

As Green as Grass

October 7, 2013

As Green As GrassI’ve been on something of an Emma Smith binge this week, in part because tomorrow I am going to meet her for tea. Tea with Emma Smith! It is too thrilling! I wonder, will there be ‘strawberry jam sandwiches and sultana scones’, as she wrote in her first volume of memoir, The Great Western Beach, or are these only for beach picnics?

I wrote here about Emma Smith’s superb novel The Far Cry – long-lost, then wonderfully recovered thanks to Susan Hill and Persephone Books. I hadn’t realised that Bloomsbury were just about to publish her second volume of memoir, As Green As Grass. What perfect timing. Having recently emerged from the colourful world of 1940s India captured within Persephone’s signature grey covers, I could swiftly immerse myself in more of Smith’s lush prose, but this time of the England of her youth – as she puts it, ‘before, during and after the Second World War’.

The Far CryIt is a real delight to read about the life of an author you greatly admire. The Far Cry is beautifully written, and offers one of the most startling and distressing characters in literature, but it is also about an intriguing subject – life on an Indian tea plantation in the 1940s. In her Preface to the novel, Smith writes tantalisingly about the basis for the novel – her trip to India after the Second World War, to make a documentary about the tea plantations. Who was with her on the trip? None other than Laurie Lee!

So I began As Green as Grass feeling rather impatient to get to the India bit. I wanted to read about her glamorous life with Laurie Lee in literary London, and then her escapades in India. But I soon became so engrossed in the memoir, that I’d as good as forgotten about the Indian antics that were to come.

The book is divided up into three sections – Before, During and After, all in relation to the Second World War. Before is growing up in Devon, with a father suffering from the legacy of the First World War. He is unable to reconcile his days as a war hero with his job as a humble bank clerk and is prone to violent eruptions of anger, which eventually get him sectioned. Her mother explains:

Poor Daddy is ill, she says to us children, but with care and the right sort of nursing he will soon get better. She doesn’t ever use the word which looms inside my own head so menacingly: mad!

It is so exactly what it’s like to be a child suddenly caught up in something adult. The grown-ups tell you soothing half-truths, when in your head you can’t escape the menacing melodramatic reality – words which you’ve only ever overheard or read, but now they apply to your family. I remember feeling exactly the same when various scary adult things happened when I was growing up – there was such menace in words like ‘divorce’ and ‘rehab’ when applied to your own family, and yet those words were so rarely said directly to you. You’d overhear them and vaguely know of them, and of course those words would be all you could think about, while the adults were busy coddling the truth in the softness of words like ‘gone away’ and ‘ill’.

The years during the War are particularly poignant. Smith describes going out for lunch with her sister Pam and a young fighter-pilot:

As soon as we’ve met and greeted each other, Ricky holds out Pam’s left hand in order to show me the ring on her engagement finger.

‘Goodness gracious,’ I say, amazed and delighted, ‘ – you’re engaged, you and Pam! You’re going to be – are you? – actually going to be married?’

‘We sure are,’ says Ricky, smiling broadly. ‘Isn’t that right, Pam?’

I’ve met Ricky before. He’s a fighter pilot on the same station as Pam’s young and handsome: a dear. How romantic!

But when I glance up and see the expression on my sister’s face, I’m startled. It’s the fond amused look of an adult indulging the passing whim of a small boy; as though, I think, the pearl-and-sapphire ring, and what it signifies – marriage – is merely part of a game she’s playing to please this nice young man.

Later, we learn:

Ricky, the Canadian boy I met in London, was one of those fighter-pilots who flew off and didn’t come back. I remember him showing me, proudly, the ring he had put on my sister’s engagement finger, and I remember being startled by the glimpse I caught of her unguarded expression: she knew!

Somehow the knowing – the complete destruction of any innocence, hope or optimism in favour of this necessary cynicism – is almost more terrible than the death.

There is tremendous energy in Emma Smith’s prose, you feel as though she is taking great pleasure in looking back at her youth and telling us all about it. It is written in the present tense, so you are right there, bang in the middle of things. We whizz through the pages and the years skip by, taking us to a smart typing school, then to the ‘innumerable flimsy huts that have sprung up, like a toy town’ in the grounds of Blenheim Palace to house the War Office, to gruelling cold work on wartime canals, to Bohemian Chelsea, to India, to France…

I was struck, of course, by the many differences between now and then – a time when women make friends with each other by leaving calling cards and Rupert Brooke is a heartthrob – but these differences never obstruct the great empathy Smith inspires. Beneath these surface differences, there is much that has stayed exactly the same. Her fizzing prose tells of problems and experiences that we all face – falling in love, having one’s heart broken, struggling to find what to do with one’s life, falling ill, feeling appallingly stupid for making mistakes in a new job, running out of money, and – particularly inspiring for me – having the courage, persistence and determination to keep on writing.

I can’t wait for tea!

 Emma Smith

The Far Cry

August 5, 2013

The past couple of weeks have been an Indian summer for me, reading first The Far Cry by Emma Smith and then Rummer Godden’s Breakfast with the Nikolides, which we discussed in Emily’s Walking Book Club yesterday. They are both wonderful novels written in the 1940s about a girl going to India. Each one captures something of India’s strange push-pull – the allure of the exotic matched by a shrinking from the unknown. Each one shies away from being an unthinkingly romantic Raj novel to reveal the horror that lies beneath the veneer, the cracks that riddle the surface.

Breakfast with the NikolidesI feel somewhat talked out about Breakfast with the Nikolides, after yesterday’s illuminating walk-talk across the Heath, but, briefly, I think this novel particularly fine because it masquerades as a slender coming-of-age story, and yet touches on many deeply uncomfortable ideas, such as domestic abuse, a mother not liking her child, as well as the acute political unease of British India just before Independence. It is deceptively simple, and acutely affecting. Thank you Virago for republishing so many of Rumer Godden’s novels earlier this year, this one has whet my appetite!

The Far CryIn her Preface to The Far Cry, Emma Smith relates the inspiration for her novel. In 1946, aged twenty-three, she went to India as dogsbody to a documentary film group – whose scriptwriter, incidentally, was Laurie Lee (see here) – to make educational films about tea in Assam. She stepped off the gangplank at Bombay and ‘India burst upon me with the force of an explosion’ and, from then on:

Each moment was vibrant with the thrill of a discovery that had to be recorded, and because such youthful impressions have no store of similar memories to refer to or compare them with, they can be as vivid as the rising of the sun at the dawn of a cloudless newly-created summer’s day, glittering, unique … I scribbled, scribbled accordingly.

Luckily for us, this scribbled diary became the basis for this brilliant novel, which was first published in 1949 and was an The Far Cry endpaperinstant hit. Luckily for us, again, Persephone Books rescued it from the oblivion into which it had unjustly sunk by republishing it in 2002, with especially pretty endpaper.

Teresa is an awkward young teenager, living with her stern Aunt May when her father, the rather pathetic Randall Digby, who thinks his estranged wife is coming to England to reclaim Teresa, decides to cart her off to India and out of her reach. He decides they will stay with Ruth, his elder daughter from his ‘first brief and nearly happy marriage’, who has married a tea-planter.

It is immediately clear that Teresa and her father haven’t spent much time together and indeed barely know each other. While this leaves the plot ripe for sentiment and a nauseating burgeoning father-daughter relationship, Smith avoids this and sets them, quite brilliantly, against each other. Mr Digby despises Teresa’s gawkiness and tiresomeness, the way that when he takes her to London she is always:

pinching her fingers in taxi doors, losing her ticket, dropping her gloves, being, last and most terrible mortification, sick in a restaurant.

Teresa, rather than quailing under his harsh disapproval, despises the ridiculous fuss her father makes over all the preparations. Then:

Teresa, who had watched defeat and then recovery first line and then illuminate his face, observed the breach in his armour: he was old, and therefore weak. And she was young, with her strength growing. Age shook him as fiercely as he had yesterday shaken her in the street. Thoughtfully she ate her breakfast. That she had seen his weakness and was bound to take advantage of it was a tragedy, and a tragedy that the only alternative to his conquering her seemed to be for her to conquer him.

Having realised her advantage, Teresa thrives with her newfound independence and the boat becomes an adventure:

She was a traveller… and her father, in consequence, seemed to her redundant.

Their relationship soon dwindles to an occasional game of cards. It is indeed a ‘tragedy’ – a perfectly observed minor tragedy, which is transformed by Smith’s light touch into something almost as funny as it is sad.

Teresa’s story is engaging, and I enjoyed following her on the boat across to India, especially the quiet friendship she strikes up with the spinster Miss Spooner, who has the quiet wisdom and self-assurance of E.M. Forster’s Mrs Moore. The novel becomes something extraordinary, however, when Teresa and Mr Digby arrive, at last, at Ruth’s bungalow.

Ruth is one of the most chilling, distressing, affecting characters I have ever come across. Smith introduces her right at the start of the book as the endpoint of the journey, and yet we don’t meet her until we’re more than halfway through the novel. Even then, Smith cleverly teases us with another delay, and it is Ruth’s husband Edwin who meets the train, explaining that:

“I’m afraid Ruth’s away. She’s staying with some friends of ours on a neighbouring Garden … But I’m driving over tomorrow to fetch her back, so you’ll see her then.”

We suspect that there might be trouble in paradise. Smith affects a clever and pronounced change in the narrative when she introduces Ruth. Suddenly we see things from her perspective:

It seemed impossible, right up to the last minute, that they should have come … The worst had happened: there they were, faces turned expectantly towards her.

Then:

“Father!” she said aloud in her pleased and pleasant voice…

So we know instantly that Ruth is not what she seems. She can feel that her father’s arrival is ‘the worst’ that could happen and yet she can greet him in a ‘pleased and pleasant voice’. All we knew about Ruth until this point is that she is beautiful. She may be indeed beautiful on the exterior, but inside she is something altogether different. A little later, she reflects:

Relations, she realised, were as easy to deceive as anyone else: they came no nearer, they saw no deeper.

One wonders what is she hiding, why must everyone be deceived, what is underneath? And we learn:

Long ago, at an age when most little girls are more concerned about the appearance of their favourite dolls than their own, Ruth had discovered her beauty and marvelled at it. There and then she had decided on the sort of character that would display this beauty best, and not only did she choose her part but she devoted herself to it through all the stages of her growing up. Every person she came across unwittingly strengthened the lie: “Ruth never loses her temper” – and she was at pains never to lose her temper …

Ruth has spent her entire life fabricating a personality to match her appearance, a fascinating and unusual example of the dangers of beauty and vanity. It is so powerful that the book could almost be called ‘Beware of Beauty’! As Smith explains:

There is a difference, and a profound one, between trying to be good because goodness is a virtue, and trying to be good so that people may think you good. Ruth revolved in a world of mirrors…

Ruth is so caught up in maintaining her perfect reflection, that inside she withers and suffers. Achieving the perfect surface means she has lost her interior, her lack of sincerity, and she realises, when marrying Edwin, that she is ‘a fraud’. She longs to confess to him that she’s not like this, that she doesn’t know what she’s like:

‘I’ve forgotten. But not like this – this is pretence. Help me.’

But she doesn’t. Instead, this pretence ruins her and seeps out and infects her marriage. When ‘the far cry’ of the title eventually comes, it is Ruth’s cry of despair, overwhelmed by the impossibility of her life:

There is no solution, her mind cried out within her. It is useless to flee. Where can we fly? We are victims of our own absolute weakness.

This cry must go down among the great feminine cries of literature – next to Wanda’s in A Far Cry from Kensington (see here) and Rosamund’s in The Millstone (see here). (Further suggestions are welcome!)

Really this is an astonishing book. Smith has an uncanny way of penetrating to the heart of each of her characters, with all their myriad differences. One feels one absolutely understands Teresa, Mr Digby, Ruth and Edwin, as well as the minor characters. The only one who remains a mystery is quiet, enigmatic Miss Spooner. Like Forster’s Mrs Moore, she’s the one that slips through your fingers, somehow refusing to be contained by her particular fiction, leaving you wondering about her and longing for more.

Emma Smith in 1949

Daphne also enjoyed The Far Cry. (And you can read five important life lessons from Daphne here.)

Daphne and The Far Cry

Some literary mistakes

October 11, 2010

Last week, I wrote a piece for the Spectator’s Arts Blog about the mess-up surrounding publication of Jonathan Franzen’s latest book Freedom. A week after its much-hyped, viciously embargoed, British release, it was revealed that the publishers had accidently printed an earlier draft of the novel, not the final version. Apparently typos and grammatical mistakes peppered the text, in addition to some ‘small but significant’ changes to characterisation.

Now, after a great deal of fuss, and a great deal of pulping, the copies of Freedom in the shops are free from error. And I am left with no further comment other than that I pity the journalist or PHD student who has been instructed to compare and contrast the two different versions.

In my article (which you can read here), I suggested that typos aren’t the end of the world. Don’t they reveal the human fallibility of the author? Isn’t that somewhat reassuring? And isn’t that particularly apt for a novel about human fallibilty?

Most readers disagreed and I was left with a couple of comments insisting on the ghastly interference of typos.

But the Franzen debacle led me to wonder about other literary mistakes … here are a couple that sprang to mind.

One case is Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children (which I actually happened to mention in the article because of the repeated typo of ‘Rusdie’ in the author biography in my old paperback). There are some more notorious mistakes in Midnight’s Children. To mention a few:

The characters Picture Singh and Saleem go on a train from Delhi to Bombay which is said to pass through Kurla; land is reclaimed in Bombay using concrete tetrapods; and the singer Lata Mangeshkar is on the radio in 1946.

These are all errata, factual impossibilities: Kurla is on a different railway line; the tetrapods in Bombay have only ever been used to protect the sea wall against coastal erosion – not for land reclamation; and Lata Mangeshkar didn’t enjoy any real success until the 1950s.

But for those who aren’t particularly well-versed in Indian railways, Mumbai’s coastal protection policies, or Bollywood singers, they could easily slip through the net – why would one suspect these things to be false? A more serious error is getting the date of Gandhi’s assassination wrong, which is highlighted in the text when the narrator, Saleem, says:

Rereading my work, I have discovered an error in chronology. The assassination of Mahatma Gandhi occurs, in these pages in a wrong date.

Why the mistakes? Why all these factual errors? How is one to trust Rushdie or his copyeditor ever again?

In an essay written in 1983 Rushdie defends these mistakes, claiming that they are intentional, deliberate errors. They interrupt the narrative and force the reader to question the narrator, Saleem (the reader isn’t supposed to question the actual author, Rushdie). With all these mistakes, Saleem is portrayed as full of human fallibility and unreliability. Saleem is, after all, remembering his story and Rushdie emphasises the distorting process of memory:

One of the simplest truths about any set of memories is that many of them will be false … as I wrote the novel, and whenever a conflict arose between literal and remembered truth, I would favour the remembered version.

He highlights the notion of ‘memory’s truth’, to which he gives more importance than actual historical accuracy.

All rather shakey, unreliable ground.

The other literary mistake that springs to mind might be rather less intentional. It arises in a fantastic book – Season of Migration to the North by Tayeb Salih.

The narrator, Meheimed, returns to his native Sudan after spending seven months in England. Salih makes it clear that Meheimed wants to return to his village in Sudan and see it unchanged, as though he never left. But this desired vision of continuity is repeatedly disrupted, most emphatically through the character Mustafa Sa’eed, a newcomer to the village. As the novel progresses, it transpires that this character has also spent time abroad, in Cairo and in England, and Meheimed begins to piece together Mustafa Sa’eed’s story.

The ‘mistake’ occurs when, one evening, Mustafa Sa’eed recites in English, ‘in a clear voice and with an impeccable accent’ a poem, which the narrator says he later found in an anthology of First World War poetry. Here is the extract that appears in the book:

Those women of Flanders

Await the lost,

Await the lost who never will leave the harbour

They await the lost whom the train never will bring.

To the embrace of those women with dead faces,

They await the lost, who lie dead in the trenches,

the barricade and the mud.

In the darkness of night,

This is Charing Cross Station, the hour’s past one,

There was a faint light,

There was a great pain.

There’s no point in googling this, or leafing through anthologies searching for the first line ‘Those women of Flanders’. This poem would never be found in a First World War poetry anthology. What would be found in its place is Ford Madox Ford’s ‘In October 1914 (Antwerp)’. Here is the corresponding extract:

These are the women of Flanders.

They await the lost.

They await the lost that shall never leave the dock;

They await the lost that shall never again come by the train

To the embraces of all these women with dead faces:

They await the lost who lie dead in trench and barrier and foss,

In the dark of the night.

This is Charing Cross; it is past one of the clock;

There is very little light.

 

There is so much pain.

Mustafa Sa’eed is reciting a bastardised version of Ford Madox Ford’s poem. How on earth has this happened?

Season of Migration to the North was originally written in Arabic and so the poem, in the original text, must have appeared in Arabic as well. When Denys Johnson-Davies translated the novel into English in 1969, he translated the poem into English. Perhaps he didn’t recognise the poem’s provenance and so didn’t find the original for quotation. It seems a bit mean for Tayeb Salih not to have let him know!

What we have now in Season of Migration to the North is an English translation of an Arabic translation of English. It shows what a complicated and distorting process translation can be – how impossible it is to neatly reverse, instead bringing one further and further away from the original.

It is a bit like the distorting process of memory, pointed out by Salman Rushdie. When remembering something, one can’t just reverse time and go straight back to the unchanged moment. In the process of going back things change, details slip, factual impossibilities occur.

And if one takes translation on a bigger scale – the literal ‘bearing across’ not just of language but of a person – a similar distortion occurs. Season of Migration to the North is about the translation of the narrator and Mustafa Sa’eed from Sudan to England and then back to Sudan. And, as I mentioned, Tayeb Salih is keen to emphasise the changes in Sudan when each character returns:

We pass by a red brick building on the Nile bank, half finished…I tell him that when I was here only seven months ago they hadn’t even started building it.

If change happens in physical translation, then surely in this tiny microcosm of Ford Madox Ford’s poem, then change must happen too. It can’t move seamlessly from English to Arabic and then back to English – change and disruption must leave their mark. Perhaps Denys Johnson-Davies deliberately continued the process of translation rather than finding the original poem.

Or else there’s rather a glaring mistake. Lucky for the publisher that Tayeb Salih isn’t still around to make such a Franzenesque fuss about it.