Sunday, April 02, 2006

Salman Rushdie

on the birth pangs of Midnight's Children in the Times Online:

[A]dvertising taught me discipline, forcing me to learn how to get on with whatever task needed getting on with, and ever since those days I have treated my writing simply as a job to be done, refusing myself all (well, most) luxuries of artistic temperament. And it was at my desk at Ogilvy's that I remember becoming worried that I didn't know what my new novel was to be called. I took several hours off from the important work of coming up with campaigns for fresh cream cakes ('Naughty but Nice'), Aero chocolate bars ('Irresistibubble'), and the Daily Mirror ('Look into the Mirror tomorrow - you'll like what you see') to solve the problem. In the end I had two titles and couldn't choose between them: Midnight's Children and Children of Midnight. I typed them out one after the other, over and over, and then all at once I understood that there was no contest, that Children of Midnight was a banal title and Midnight's Children a good one. To know the title was also to understand the book better, and after that it became easier, a little easier, to write. I have written and spoken elsewhere about my debt to the oral narrative traditions of India; also to those great Indian novelists Jane Austen and Charles Dickens - Austen for her portraits of brilliant women caged by the social convention of their time, women whose Indian counterparts I knew well; Dickens for his great, rotting, Bombay-like city, and his ability to root his larger-than-life characters and surrealist imagery in a sharply observed, almost hyper-realistic background, out of which the comic and fantastic elements of his work seemed to grow organically, becoming intensifications of, and not escapes from, the real world.

It's funny, I am a great lover of nineteenth-century fiction in general (and I've definitely got some summer re-reading in the queue of the Tolstoy-Melville-Dostoevsky sort--not that any of those guys would appreciate being lumped in with the others in this way), but I am more and more certain that in spite of various admirations and influences--I think Flaubert is a complete genius for instance, I mean more than others in his category--the two novelists of that century that I love with utmost passion are Austen and Dickens.

Hardy, Eliot, Trollope are all close to my heart in different ways, and so certainly is Dostoevsky (especially Demons), and really I love a ton of those books (Balzac! Henry James!), but Austen and Dickens are desert-island books in a way the others aren't.

Because the Austen canon is small, I really can't pick and choose except to say what I have said elsewhere, that my favorites have shifted over time, and that Emma is currently the one that most suits my tastes and frame of mind whereas in grad school it was Mansfield Park, as a teenager Sense and Sensibility and in childhood Pride and Prejudice.

Dickens: Bleak House, of course (I remember reading it in an absolute daze, I couldn't put it down till I finished it; it was a Christmas present one year, maybe I was fourteen or fifteen, I was mesmerized); Our Mutual Friend; the amazing and somewhat underrated Little Dorrit; a bunch of others, no point listing really, certainly including Great Expectations and Edwin Drood; but first and foremost, the one that's on my top-ten favorite novels of all time list, David Copperfield.

(Thanks to the Literary Saloon at the Complete Review for the link.)

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