Friday, January 24, 2014

JLF's unmissables

I feel I'm at the front row of a U2 concert," quipped a friend who was with me at the jam-packed Jonathan Franzen talk at the recently concluded Jaipur Literature Festival, or JLF. Mr Franzen is arguably the greatest living novelist in English and might have the best vocabulary in the Western Hemisphere, but his talk was hardly illuminating. Maybe that's because I had already read his ridiculously brilliant Paris Review interview. So I adopted a different tack. I went to see mostly the writers I hardly knew anything about but who looked incredibly fascinating on paper.

First on this list was a talk titled "Two Typewriters". (All JLF sessions are available to watch online.) The writer-couple John Ralston Saul and Adrienne Clarkson gave an absolutely terrific talk while in conversation with Jonathan Shainin, news editor at The New Yorker's website. Right from talking about their early days in Paris to how they inspire each other to pitching Canada (rightfully so) as an immigrant paradise, this talk was solid gold. "Every year, 250,000 immigrants come to Canada and become citizens of the country while those who go to the US end up as resident aliens," said Ms Clarkson, formerly the governor general of Canada.

On the other end of the same spectrum was a session called "Litcrit", which provided a bit of useful insight into how writers perceived book reviewers. Rana Dasgupta said that he didn't give much weight to the critics in the United States and the United Kingdom, but that in Germany and Australia the reviewing scene was amazing. Danish author Carsten Jensen said book reviewers were usually people in academia who had no connection with the real world and that they wrote only for peer approval. British novelist Philip Hensher said he disliked super-critic James Wood's tendency to find a religious arc in every novel - which Homi Bhabha, the latter's colleague at Harvard and the moderator of the session, thought was a wrong reason to pour scorn at Mr Wood. In short, this Real Madrid team sort of a panel kept everyone hooked.

Among the infectious sessions, the one that took the cake was the collective swooning called "Bright Young Things of the Jazz Age". Both sides of the Atlantic were represented by the best people possible: Sarah Churchwell, a Fitzgerald scholar-squirrel, represented the US and Lara Feigel and Nicholas Shakespeare the UK. They drew wonderful parallels to the Jazz Age and the economic meltdown of 2008. Odd facts tumbled out. For example, Evelyn Waugh was jealous of his elder brother's looks and literary talent till he managed to supersede him with his work on the swinging twenties. The Jazz Age was a derivative of the Prohibition Era. When her daughter was born, Zelda Fitzgerald wanted her to grow up to be a "beautiful little fool", a line her husband used in The Great Gatsby. For more on this, read Ms Churchwell's majestic book Careless People.

Another gem was "Leaving Iran", where Fariba Hachtroudi and Reza Aslan walked down memory lane as they talked about their motherland. Mr Aslan was especially amusing: "During the Iran hostage crisis, Americans hated Iranians and for the longest time I pretended to be Mexican," he said in a dry tone that was at once funny and scary. Joseph O'Neill's chat with Samanth Subramanian on his usage of cricket in his novel Netherland was stimulating, too. This post-9/11 novel that earned Mr O'Neill wide acclaim, thanks to its sparkling prose and despairing imagery of a lonely man's existence in an increasingly alien city, featured a cricket club in New York. Mr O'Neill spoke in a tone suffused with wry humour about how he came to include the game in the novel and his own association with the game.

There were a couple of talks, though, that lived up to their top billing. Not surprisingly, one involved Mr Aslan. His new book, Zealot - which places Jesus of Nazareth at the top of a long list of nationalist messianic Jewish zealots - is topping the bestseller charts, and was discussed at "Jesus the Man, Jesus the Politician". Mr Aslan was at the peak of his crowd-pleasing form, bracingly funny, not least when throwing barbs at Dan Brown. He suggested three easy steps to making the gospels appeal to non-Jews: "You have to make Jesus a little less Jewish; then a little less radical; and remove all blame from Rome for the death of Jesus." What's more, he even had free advice for aspiring writers, "I always tell my MFA students [he teaches at the University of California, Riverside] that if they want to make it big as a novelist, they must somehow include two themes in their novels: vampires and love."

However, my personal favourite was Rana Dasgupta's conversation with William Dalrymple on his new book, Capital, a sort of biography of Delhi of the 21st century. The session attracted massive crowds - and no one left midway (a norm at most talks). From whatever he read, his marvellous hold on English language really came through.

It remains to be seen how Mr Dalrymple and his associates manage to top this next year. By the way, this fest, which clings to its democratic credentials by holding all the sessions free, is scheduled for January 21-25 next year. Mark your diaries.