Friday, March 11, 2011

"I say that the Library is unending."

Don’t be fooled by the New School venue and the prominent writers at the podium; this event is a fundraiser for the little known Brooklyn Waldorf School where two parents happen to be Sean Wilsey and Jhumpa Lahiri (and both happen to know Jonathan Franzen), and they happen to have literary clout, and if they charge money to speak, people will come.

So here we are: arms sore with copies of Franzen’s Freedom (and, I begrudge the audience, Lahiri’s Unaccustomed Earth) we want signed, eyes sore from scanning the auditorium for empty seats and drawing near blanks. Wilsey gamely welcomes the audience and explains the importance of libraries, and libraries for children. He quotes Jorge Luis Borges—a librarian as well as a writer—whose words I must include here, because he is tremendous:

Like all men of the Library, I have traveled in my youth; I have wandered in search of a book, perhaps the catalogue of catalogues; now that my eyes can hardly decipher what I write, I am preparing to die just a few leagues from the hexagon in which I was born. Once I am dead, there will be no lack of pious hands to throw me over the railing; my grave will be the fathomless air; my body will sink endlessly and decay and dissolve in the wind generated by the fall, which is infinite. I say that the Library is unending. The idealists argue that the hexagonal rooms are a necessary form of absolute space or, at least, of our intuition of space. They reason that a triangular or pentagonal room is inconceivable. (The mystics claim that their ecstasy reveals to them a circular chamber containing a great circular book, whose spine is continuous and which follows the complete circle of the walls; but their testimony is suspect; their words, obscure. This cyclical book is God.) Let it suffice now for me to repeat the classic dictum: The Library is a sphere whose exact center is any one of its hexagons and whose circumference is inaccessible.

—Borges’ short story “Library of Babel”

Moderator Sean Wilsey, initially overwhelmed by Lahiri and Franzen’s entries in his anthology State by State, confesses to us that his praise for their pieces was received with more sedated emails from them: “you really need to try to reign in your hyperbole.” But his child’s kindergarten teacher need not, he assures us in his introduction that is anchored in the glory of libraries and literacy (hence Borges earlier). She is teaching her students the alphabet—specifically, the “spatial relationship of lower case letters”—and “baby j,” for example, “dips its feet in the water and likes to play ball.” Creativity, humor and word-making have no bounds—like Borges' library.

Time for the authors to indulge us and themselves a little. Lahiri goes first. She is precise at the microphone, holding her manuscript up firmly. She inflects such that each clause ends on a minor note, hooking lugubriously onto the next. Her excerpt is from a novel-in-progress: two urchins who have stolen onto a golf course in their hometown of Calcutta where they marvel at its manicured elitism, its “perfect little [golf ball] holes like navels in the earth.” These are boys whose youth unabashedly drives their subconscious into smorgasbords of adventure, so that they have to “[step] so many mornings out of dreams.” Another character compares the colors outside her window to the jars of Indian spices on the sill; very clever.

Franzen follows with self-deprecating and snarky remarks, already he is more appetizing: “Intergenerically; I’m going to read some nonfiction...Apologies if you’ve read it, hopefully I can add some value by reading it in my voice. I’ve never read it before…may never read it again.” He flicks a glance at us over his glasses.

“The Mediterranean,” he begins, “is nothing but extremely blue.” He is stooped over the mic, having not adjusted it after Lahiri, and looks casually at the audience, naturally lifting his eyes off the page to talk to us (I don’t mean to compare him and Lahiri, but I shall anyway). He doesn’t just frame a precise picture with poise—usually authors read only enough to give us an outline—but tells us a story easily, informally. However this is nonfiction, and after a sip of water, he dramatically unplugs a flow of facts about birds damned to extinction, and we are both amused and informed. “There ensued a blur of fighting,” he writes of a group of men confused in their confrontation. One character’s fanaticism is “matter-of-fact,” and so is Franzen when he looks up to tell us that “it’s just really stupid” to hunt migratory birds in the Spring when they’re off to reproduce. Later he can’t tell if a bird meat’s bitterness is “real or the product of emotion.”

One of my favorite lines is by a Cypriot in his piece who says, “we’re a middle Eastern country that’s part of Europe by accident.” [Read a larger excerpt in The Telegraph, here.]

Back to Wilsey to address questions of his own and from the audience to the authors sitting on either side of him, and he is utter unpreparedness is visible in the boy’s smirk across his face. Franzen responds with witty impatience, masterfully trading words for silence, lost in thoughts and gazes before speaking. Stalling humorously, Wilsey circuitously asks the authors about geography. Franzen talks of investing his characters—often Midwestern—with “explanatory power to make life more interesting…our own watered down version of myth.” Lahiri says that geography “is increasing for me as a preoccupation of work.”

In the case of Fiction v. Non-Fiction, Franzen argues that Non Fiction is “playing the game of writing, waiting for something to happen,” whereas fiction “seems somewhat indulgent” since the author gets “really involved in stuff you’ve made up”. But he is clearly an author since he finds “straight up journalism...incredibly confining.”

One Brooklyn Waldorf parent to another, Wilsey asks Lahiri about kids. She advocate reliving childhood through them since it’s “nourishing to question things, struggle with things.” Fiction writers are “repeatedly decoding the world, an unsolvable puzzle,” as parents do for their children.

Paradoxically, Franzen claims to hates research and Lahiri believes that when writing there is “some sort of research going on continuously to create a life through language.” Franzen teaches us that when Kafka wrote Amerika (aka The Man Who Disappeared) set in Oklahoma, “Oklahoma was just a word he knew.” He thinks for a moment. “I don’t think he did too much research on bugs either.”

PS. Happy Birthday, Anusha!

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Carnatic Music at the UN

In a large auditorium in the EcoSoc building, where the East River Breeze can’t find us, we arrange ourselves in rows behind long desks, eager on this Wednesday evening for a concert guaranteed to impress. Dignitaries and civilians mill about me, shaking hands and smiling, knowing they are being observed. The room buzzes gently with polyglots whose passports are as thick as their resumes are long; I’m helplessly impressed.

Promptly at 6:45 p.m., Secretary General Ban Ki Moon greets the audience with folded hands and in Hindi, delighting the mostly Indian crowd. Living in New Delhi for three years “I learned diplomacy,” he tells us, describing the “high ambitions” he had then, that he hopes he has achieved since. “I really enjoyed Indian music when I was tired, afraid,” and used it to “relax, reflect and recharge.” Moon gestures to the empty offices surrounding us: “music can be enjoyed just as it is, that is why we don’t have interpreters here this evening.”

After a brief opening aarti, Dr. L. Subramaniam and his son Ambi are tuning their violins on stage. Father and son sit erect, smiling, relaxed. Senior introduces the pieces with a short explanation, included in the program, before beginning the performance, while Junior accompanies as a second shruti box until invited to join in. They are two violins in harmony without actually harmonizing—another irresistibly Carnatic trait. Senior closes his eyes while his fingers help us see the intricacies of a ragam; I am blinded by his speed. Junior balances his violin on his chest and leg, his arms free to keep talam and transcribe in his mind the melodies he will share.

I have heard varnams sung and performed countless times, but never in 4, 5, 6 speeds. Senior’s bow stutters over the strings with precision and clarity; Junior’s echo is equally sharp. Three notes are jammed into the space of one, but each one resonates distinctly. Senior wields 4 octaves of Kalyani at the touch of a finger, never misses a count; Junior keeps up with a smile, never loses a breath—in the end, it’s us who are breathless. Senior is supported by mridangam and moorsing; Junior jams with a gatam and tavil: being accompanied by 4 percussion instruments creates a thrilling and robust orchestra.

In between the first and last piece, Senior jokes with the audience that “in Indian concerts, a ‘short piece’ can be one to three hours, but it’s the UN so we’ll stick to the time.” Exactly an hour after they started, Senior and Junior are bowing to applause, and along with their percussionists, accept flowers from Mrs. Moon. I leave with an elevated heart rate that’s still trying, in vain, to keep pace with the swift see-saws of the Subramaniams’ bows.