27 January 2011

The Jaipur Jamboree

Jaipur Literature Festival that has steadily grown in popularity in the last six years and has come to become the definitive literary event in South-Asia, encountered an unexpected problem this year. What one thought to be an intimate, snug coming together of book lovers and illustrious authors at the quaint and beautiful Diggi Palace has ballooned into an uncontainable carnival with hordes of crowds pouring in from all over the city, country and beyond.

The 'free entry' to the event attracted the locals in fair measure too, with schools etc perhaps encouraging their students to benefit from the lit-fest. So the first impression was of the overflowing crowds that barely fitted into a venue meant for a few thousand. The gentle manners prescribed at these sort of events ensured that people didn't exactly push each other around, though there were of course times when ladies in impeccable designer arty ware elbowed their way to reach the kullar chais (tea in earthen pots) served at the venue. There was the public which had come 'just-like that' and did not adhere to the simple decorum of keeping their cell phones silent during sessions. But it would be fair to say that there was genuine curiosity and interest among the majority and it's heartening that the event has assuredly grown in stature (financially too, considering the number of major sponsors the event has attracted this year). But organisers William Dalrymple and Namita Gokhale would have to put on their thinking caps and try and find a way to balance the fest's inherent intellectual appeal without losing out on its democratic spirit. Solution? More festivals in other parts of the country, as Dalrymple has been suggesting? Possibly.

Not surprisingly, finding a chair became the biggest mission in the event, and most of us ended up sitting on the aisles listening to the speakers. The place was divided into four nearby venues within the Diggi Palace – all beautifully done up in different styles. Lines of colourful ribbon cloth spread across the ceilings, with the charming sight of a Victorian style fountain amidst roses. There were prettily decked up stalls – selling artifacts, finely binded classics. Then of course, there were the food stalls, selling muffins and pastries in the lawns, which we could relish only on the last day when the crowds had finally thinned out.

Coming to the centre piece of this event – the numerous sessions with wonderful writers spread across the five days – was invigorating, though the one hour time proved to be slightly inadequate at times, especially in sessions where more than a couple of writers took part. So what you got were snippets of ideas, rather than any elaborate exposition of the themes.
There was also the session with Gulzar, Akthar and Prasoon Joshi on 'Hindi songs' that saw a near stampede, and seeing the audience interest, the session was repeated at lunch time the same day.

The other sessions involving authors like Patrick French (in conversation with Amitava Kumar), Chimananda Adichi, Kiran Desai, Ruskin Bond, Vikram Seth, Orphan Pamuk and Mohsin Hamid were the other highlights of the event.
A great festival for India for sure, with a lot of international interest in it. As one expects from an event such as this, the fashion quotient was unusually high, which mildly distracted from what is really supposed to be an intellectual and creative meeting-point for people. A word about the Rajasthani food served. Absolutely lip-smacking and delicious. That made sure we wouldn't leave with a bad taste in the mouth even if the dust and noisy crowd was a serious turn off.

Javed Akhtar and Urdu zubaan

Javed Akhtar was one of the show stealers at the event, as he spoke on 'Urdu Zabaan' , its evolution and its current state. “It's a paradox that people who talk and write in Urdu have reduced, and yet, those curious and fascinated about this language have increased.”
On how Urdu came into being, the celebrated screenwriter and lyricist says, “Basically, Urdu borrowed from other languages, especially Persian. But it was molded in the local flavour” Explaining this, he says, “You see, 'hawa' is a Persian word but 'hawayein' is Urdu. Again, 'amir' is taken from Arabic, but 'amiron ne' or 'amiri' is Urdu's own invention."
He also spoke about how Urdu has been unfairly viewed as an Islamic language. “While most of the poetry that originated in other languages started as religious poetry that transcended to other themes, Urdu poetry was secular and anti-fundamentalist from day one. The fight between Aurangazeb and Shivaji was never about religion. Neither was the one between Akbar and Maharana Pratab about Hindu-Muslim. These were territorial battles, not on religious lines. In any case, how can a religion have a language? Zabaan illakon ki hoti hai,” he says eloquently. “People sadly accepted that Urdu belonged to Pakistan and the baby was thrown with the bath water,” he adds.
He also talked about how the common perception about Urdu is that it circulates between lowest-common denominator words like 'sharaab' and 'mehboob' “But the language actually encompasses everything from Indian politics to weather to traditional festivals to myths and folk.”
Stressing more on the liberal and non-religious appeal of Urdu, and how it was a victim of political agenda, he says, “During the progressive writers' movement (pro-poor with leftist leanings), every major Urdu writer was at the forefront of it. But after Indian independence in 1947, Urdu became the step-child of the establishment. How do you destroy a language? You do it by simply destroying its economic utility. That's what they did.”
Since much of our knowledge of Urdu comes from watching Mughal dramas such as Jodhaa Akbar etc, Akhtar had some interesting observations to make on this. “Akbar never spoke Urdu at all. He wore a lungi and spoke what was a mix of Punjabi, and other Hindi dialects such as Avadhi and Kathyavadi,” Akhtar said, imitating how Akbar might have sounded. “Only when the Mughals started to disintegrate, did Urdu begin to emerge. It is with the coming of the British that the language got more recogonition,” he says.
Even if one were to think that Urdu is almost dead in India, Akhtar believes the language lives through Bollywood songs. “It is alive in our songs and dialogues even if it is called Hindi cinema.”

Junot Diaz – Story-teller in chief

Another extremely provocative session was that with Pulitzer Prize winning author Junot Diaz with his bold, unconventional views on writing and reading. He points out how as a society we need less applause and more conversation to create something new and of value. “Society wants you to to seek its approval, and in such an atmosphere there isn't much scope to develop an artistic temperament,” he notes. “Do the monkey dance so we can clap for you' “As an artiste, you need to go into bizarre areas knowing people may not like it. You have to fight approval of others.”
One of the aspects readers find in his novels is that all of it is not easily intelligible, but Junot says he deliberately puts in words in his text knowing people may not understand. “Reading is not a test. You read because it duplicates the experience of being out in the world. You don't have to understand everything. Unintelligibility is just a natural part of a novel. It is an invitation for you to form a community, by asking around for those words.” he said, adding, “As a child you take help to understand a text. But as you grow older you eschew that ability.'
About his own writing, he says he's a slow writer and doesn't produce much. And he notes how much of what seems to be natural writing, an organic rhythm is actually a deeply artificial one. “It never comes at the first go. What you write instantly is actually more stilted and staged that what you produce after many re-writings. To sound real involves a laboured, long and artificial craft.” he says.

'Aisi Hindi Kaisi Hindi'

The session which included Mrinal Pande, Prasoon Joshi and Sudeesh Pachori spoke about the threat to Hindi from English and how the language needs to update itself somewhat to keep up with the times. Mrinal Pandey speaking about her distaste for abuses in the Hindi language said, “An increase in abuses demonstrates an impoverishment of the language and limitation of vocabulary. I think the effect of a gaali can be created using civil language,” she smiled, giving a few piquant examples. “Lastly, a lot of these words are plain objectionable to women.”
However, she also noted how there are no words related to sex in Hindi, and many women, especially struggle to explain their problems. “This is true about some of the other regional tongues also. This could be one of the reasons for more gaalis in the absence of proper words for certain body parts. We need to make new dictionaries, so that gaalis can be erased from our discourse,” she said.

Kiran Desai and the inheritance of books

Anita Desai was nominated for the Man Booker Prize three times, but it was her daughter Kiran Desai who bagged it for her book, The Inheritance of Loss. Having left for America as a child, Kiran in her conversation with Jai Arjun Singh spoke about her lack of rootedness and the difficulties that arose in her writing as a result of that. “I was fighting for an in-between place, cause I didn't belong to neither India nor America. When I left India I knew my life had changed and I would never be able to think about India in the same way again.”
Talking about the influence of her mother, she says, “My mother is deeply an author. - the way she talks, her silences, the way she sits...she is every bit an author. As a child I used to see a young Amitav Ghosh, Salman Rushdie coming to meet her at home. For the longest time, my mother kept her writing a secret. She used to pack us off to school and then bring out her pad to write so we never actually knew her as a writer. We would directly see her finished books.”
Kiran enrolled in a creative writing workshop to hone her own skills, an endeavour which didn't entirely work for her. “Everyone at that time used to laugh at these writing workshops. Gradually some writers came who were writing workshop products and suddenly you couldn't laugh at them anymore. They taught me discipline. Also, if you're lucky you will meet a good teacher who can guide you well. But these workshops can also destroy your confidence because what you write will not appeal to everyone. You are looking at group approval, a pack mentality, where so and so is offended by something you write, so and so doesn't get this joke, and by the end of it, there is no novel left.”
One of the biggest challenges Kiran says she faces is because she does not have an authority on the settings in her novels. “When an author writes for a constricting narrative, he is able to get in a great amount of depth and intimacy. I see a lot more imagination in their characters. I am jealous of that. I, on the other hand, am conscious of not knowing anything completely about any place – just fragmented worlds. I have to jigsaw a lot of things.”
“Running out of stories is never my concern, but how to tell them is always my concern. Otherwise the world is always over-flowing with stories. I never have a particular audience in mind. I am moving so much,” she says.

Muniza and Kamila Shamsie – Two nations, Two narratives

The mother-daughter writer team of Muniza and Kamila Shamzie discussed the themes that have run generationally in Pakistani writing, and what aspects influence their works. Attia Hosein's 1961 novel, Sunlight On A Broken Column was also invoked during the talk. Muniza spoke about how the partition was very much part of her life. “ I had all kinds of cultural conflicts. I was very aware of partition. My earliest memory goes back to when I was 3. I remember the sight of Karachi and my father waiting to receive us. And I grew up with this discourse of partition – people kept discussing it – why did it happen etc. so I was conscious about my family with a past. The Indian side of my family couldn't see eye to eye with us and they raved and ranted at my father.”

Interestingly, in all their novels, the personal and the political have merged. “Novels look at the greys, there's the realm of the imagination. The national narratives do not contain that. Novels show you new dimensions, present things anew.”
Kamila expressed that the Indo-Pak partition is very interesting to her dramatically. “But I belong to the Zia generation, so writers like me tend to look more at Aghanistan, Jehad mentality and so on. These are the themes that are more prevalent in the novels of the younger Pakistani writers,” she says.
The one challenge before younger Pakistani novelists with elite education is to somehow find a way to include the Urdu idiom into English. “Ahmed Ali consciously tried to get the Persian Urdu idiom and got criticised for it, because the language many felt was stilted. Much like how it was with Mulk Raj Anand in India.” Kamila says, adding that she is most comfortable in English and Urdu is her second language. “There is no issue about it. I think in English, I dream in English. You write in the language you are most comfortable in and if by the force of your education you can do better in English, then one must write in that language.”
The fact that everyone these days is bilingual has greatly helped writers. “ Earlier you didn't have an audience if you wanted to write in a bilingual language. Today most of the young gen of writers are doing it. The market is English today. Certain phrases come out better in the regional languages and a way has to be found out. For me finding that way around is part of the pleasure,” she says.

Imaginary homelands

This session looked at diaspora writers and the constant debate on whether their fiction is pure enough to represent their countries. Junot Diaz and Kamila Shamsie among others were part of this debate that was anchored by writer Chandrahas Choudhury. “Nations are obsessed with purity, when really none of us are all pure,” said Junot. “We live in a world that is churning. People who travel are not just the global elite. Everyone is moving around. Writers read a lot so they are part of many imaginary worlds,” said Shamsie, adding. “ You cannot have all your stories based on your own experiences, then there would be no fiction.”

Mohsin Hamid

Mohsin Hamid's morning session on the last day of the festival with Chandrahas Choudhury was an immensely enjoyable one, where the author threw light on his celebrated novel, The Reluctant Fundamentalist and his craft. The Pakistani writer who has been living in America for the past many years wrote an earlier novel called Moth Smoke, which also gained a fair amount of acclaim. But it was The Reluctant Fundamentalist set in the backdrop of 9/11 that made Mohsin famous.
Unlike popular assumption, the novel's first draft was not written after 9/11, but much before that. " I wrote it in 2000, and at that point the publisher wasn't too interested. A story about a Muslim man having an uneasy relationship with America was not something that captured anyone's imagination. But after 2001, it was like, 'That book you are working on...' he narrates to an amused audience on the demand and relevance the subject suddenly acquired.

Mohsin had to make certain changes to his original draft after 9/11. " Earlier I had modelled it like a thriller, something like John Grisham's The Firm. But after 9/11, I had to subvert many things," he tells us.

Ask him about his excessive use of commas in his text, and the young writer says, "I've never really understood punctuations. For me punctuations are like spellings - you don't know why a word is spelt the way it is. My purpose for using commas and semi colons is only one - to give cadence to words. Colon is a connecting pause, a comma is just a rhythmic break. It's more a musical notation than a grammatical notation. The basic point for me is cadence, because we speak and think with cadences. There is a magical feeling to that rhythm. I try to achieve that, where I get the reader to slip into a certain rhythm, where you are already moving. An emotional state is thereby achieved."

Like many other writers, Mohsin too believes that fiction is not a spontaneous art at all. "All writers are readers. I read my stuff hundreds of times. it's a continuous act of evolution and refinement," he says.

13 January 2011

Jimmy the terrorist - Omair Ahmad's interview

Author: Omair Ahmad
Pages: 180

It's easy to read author Omair Ahmad's new book, Jimmy The Terrorist, as a partisan novel about mariginalistion of the Muslim community in India, their victimisation and all the issues that come with it. But Ahmad is staunchly against such narrow readings. The book is set in the fictional town of Maozamabad in Muslim-dominated colony in UP, and follows closely the life of a few of its denizens, against the changing socio-political atmosphere in the country. In establishing the history of the people of the town, the author briefly touches upon the antecedents, following which the drama begins from the 60s where you enter the life of an ordinary Muslim youth, Rafiq who aspires to be a well-educated elite. The old Shabbir Manzil, which houses affluent Muslim families and is the intellectual hub for poets, is where Rafiq aspires to be. He finally becomes privy to this much envied circle by way of his marriage to Shiasta -- the well-educated cousin of the affluent Ahmad Sayeed. However, other complications come along. The Rafiq-Shiasta union produces a son, Jamal aka Jimmy, and it is in his young life that you see the undercurrents of religious intolerance taking its ugliest turn.
The novel undoubtedly points at the vulnerable, fragile situation of Muslims in India, even though Omair is enough of a writer to add touches of irony (the Muslim characters show a tendency to feel victimised for everything, often ignoring their personal failings.)

Taking Omair Ahmad's point that his book is primarily a personal, human story and must not be seen as religion-specific, it could be pointed out that there are some jumps in the narration that aren't altogether convincing. The Rafiq-Shiasta relationship is a complex one, but never really clear. Nor is Rafiq's slow hardening of his Muslim identity. Whether these things are allegorical or so not is besides the point - purely as a story, there seem to be a few gaps.

Ahmad's book started as a short story of 4000 words, which ultimately got transformed into a novel. "I was in the US at that time, and was trying to explain to colleagues in think tanks (this is the time of Godhra, the Parliament attack, just after September 11, after Afghanistan and just around the time of Iraq) the costs of violence, and the breakdown of law and order on young people, especially in the context of religious politics. In a sense although this is set in a Muslim locality, I believe that it should generally work in the context of any minority facing majoritarian politics -- think of Kashmiri Pandits, of Ahmadiya in Pakistan & Bangladesh...," says the author whose earlier novella, The Storyteller's Tale came in for much praise.

"The novel was because of a nudge by Ravi Singh (at Penguin), and also maybe as I got older I have become less interested in the violence, and more interested in the larger society, about ideas of social mobility, the problems of small town societies... So the novel is frankly about very different things than the short story."

Though the novel concerns itself with a particular Muslim locality and simultaneously traces the country and community's trajectory through prickly religious events, Ahmad clearly states that he is not trying to 'represent' the Indian Muslim community. "I don't think that is the choice, or job, of a writer. The essential question are: "why would somebody do this thing? what are the circumstances necessary? does it make sense?" The only job a writer has to try to search for some kind of truth and make it a little clearer -- to share his or her understanding... The partial drive in the book is to understand how complicated people really are, how a story has not just two, or three, or even
four perspectives, but more than any one person can adequately capture. We just get a bare outline of all of that.," says the author, who has worked as a political journalist with Outlook.

The book decidedly appears mostly allegorical, where each character mirrors some facet of society. But Omair's answer suggests there was no strict pattern to the narrative, and many characters in the novel simply behave the way they do because of the kind of people they are. "I hope that not everything is simply representational. Shabbir Manzil, and Ahmad Saeed, are obviously characteristic of a declining aristocratic, educated elite, but the fact that Ahmad Saeed likes the poetry he does, or how he deals with the failure in the UPSC exams is something of his own character, that of an imagined person,not simply a code word for something else. Similarly Shaista passion, her bitterness, is who she is." he says, adding wryly, "If I may say so, I am not Dan Brown (for one, my books don't sell
millions of copies!)
and I am not writing puzzles for people to solve,
but trying to understand why people might act the way they do."

Omair's idea for the novel began with one thought - what would be a Muslim youth's mind-set amidst events of religious intolerance and unrest? But this situation is hardly unique to India alone, and several Muslims will admit that their sense of marginalisation is far greater in other countries. The story based in a small town in UP can easily translate into being a microcosm for Indian religious conflicts and further a microcosm for Muslim victimisation. It's a subtext hard to escape, but Omair insists on seeing the story as a purely human one. "The only uniqueness for me about the Indian experience is that it is mine. When I write about eastern UP, about the failure of our agriculture policies, about the crumbling of our infrastructure, our hope in a vision of 'modernity' that we may not be able to fully
achieve, I write about people and places I know." he says.

07 January 2011

Rediscovering Austen

Jane Austen (Tony Tanner) case study

They say, 'one half of the world cannot understand the pleasures of the other'. That rightly applies to Jane Austen, who probably has as many die-hard admirers as skeptics. Her enduring popularity continues to bewilder a section of authors and literary critics who find her novels and concerns too remote and limited to be taken seriously. Her growing fame mystified her contemporaries like Charlotte Bronte and Mark Twain who repeatedly wondered aloud what all the fuss around her was. Many derisively said that if you had read one Austen novel, it was as good as reading all of them.

Austen's popularity in the critical sphere has gone through periods of ups and lows, but her appeal among regular readers has never shown the slightest signs of a decline. Austen's constricted, over-decorous society of the 18th century might seem a bit ludicrous to modern readers. But the prim liveliness in her stories, the sparking wit and characters edged with delicious irony have enthralled generations of readers, and the charm and appeal of her works remain undiminished.
More importantly, even though she based all her stories in a certain class of English gentry and dealt primarily with themes of domesticity and marriagablity, it was still a legitimate microcosm of the larger society and for an acute reader, these are stories that offer much insight about the times Austen lived in. Of course, her enduring popularity remains a fascinating subject for research, and many of her critic-admirers have done penetrating studies on Austen's world, trying to reassert her genius.

One of the case study books on Jane Austen I perused recently was by critic Tony Tanner, who provides a provocative though stimulating study of her novels. Some of Tanner's focus is on disproving through analysis of her novels that Austen was not the sequestered spinster with scant knowledge of the outside world, as she was believed to be. All his seven essays - each dedicated to one novel are illuminating and unfurl a world of meanings, pointing to the larger themes and subtexts present in Austen’s narrative choices.

The period Austen wrote was one where great changes were taking place. Politically, England was engaging in a war with Napoleon Bonaparte. The Romantic movement was challenging the Age of Reason, where many of the old ways was being considered too priggish and stifling. Jane Austen grew up on eighteenth century rationalism and was loyal to its principles that honoured limits and boundaries. She was respectful of social systems and old values, and laid a lot of emphasis on sense and prudence. In fact, she was also particular about manners, class, and propriety in her earlier novels. But this last aspect changes once we come to her last novel, Persuasion, as Tony Tanner’s critique brings out.

Tanner’s book points at a certain recurrent theme in Austen’s novels that most of her readers might have detected already – the struggle between ‘stillness’ and ‘energy’ – sense v/s sensibility, prudence v/s impulse and sobriety v/s indulgence. The only heroine in whom we see a congruence of reason and energy is Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice. Her spirit, wit and liveliness are seen to be a source of great delight in an otherwise dull and inferior society. Tanner rightly thinks that this happy coming together of pragmatism with a fairy tale touch of romance in Pride and Prejudice is what offers the novel its unfading relevance. However, this vibrancy is not found in Austen’s other works and the analysis points at how she grew skeptical about too much effervescence and energy. Austen’s fear of ‘unfettered movement’ and ‘openness’ was evident in Sense and Sensibility, where she creates a romantic figure in the form of Marianne, who she treats with ‘an ambiguous mix of sympathy and satire’

The larger issue Austen deals with is that of individual impulse and social order. The elder sister, Elinor is a preserver of ‘screens’ in that it she ‘who is constantly trying to smooth and harmonise potentially abrasive and discordant occasions, giving the raw social realities a vaneer of art’. Marianne is the opposite and ‘demands that outward forms exactly portray or project inward forms’. She will have none of the hypocrisy and will speak her mind at all times. But Austen sees the impossibility of this situation, where if everyone were to behave according to their own whims and impulses – then there would be no society at all, and only anarchy.

Sense And Sensibility was Austen’s first novel and Tanner speaks of how it is largely considered the author’s weakest novels due to the ‘crude antithesis’ in the schematic separation of qualities of both sisters. This is done for greater clarity, but critics found it primitive and much similar to the moralistic fiction of the past age. Yet, Tanner believes and I wholeheartedly agree that things are never black and white in the novel, and Austen’s sympathies lie with both Elinor and Marriane. Tanner expresses his disappointment with the novel’s brusque ending, where Marriane is ‘tamed’ after her sickness and marries a man she had never fancied earlier. What can be said here is that Austen – though sympathetic about romance and individual choices – is a far greater advocate of reason. Since society was the ‘unalterable given’ to her, she believed her characters had to negotiate within those spaces and find happiness.

While Austen’s tenor was more light –hearted in Pride and Prejudice, it grew positively severe in her third novel, Mansfield Park. It was a time when new cities were coming up, and London was emerging as a fashion centre. Austen knew the quiet life of the country-side, which she loved, would sooner than later feel the ripples of this change. “Jane Austen, then, was living in a diminishing enclave of traditional rural stability just prior to a period of convulsive, uncontrollable change,” writers Tanner. So while the theme of energy versus stillness continues in Mansfield Park, the novel is also about ‘rest and restlessness, stability and change and movable and immovable’.

It is also probably Austen’s most metaphorical works, and she creates at the centre a heroine – Fanny Price – whom most readers have had a dislike for. Unlike her other heroines, Fanny is staid, still and faultless. ‘It is regarded as the story of a girl who triumphs by doing nothing’. Against Fanny’s stoicism and moral rectitude, she juxtaposes a shifting world, and inhabits it with ebullient, exciting characters. The two ‘outsider’ brother-sister team, Mary and Henry Crawford are products of the stylish London society. Outwardly, they are charming, witty and jolly people. Austen places at the centre of the novel a theatrical performance that is staged by the denizens of the Mansfield Park mansion. It is done when the patriarch guardian of the house, Sir Thomas is away. Such a practice is not encouraged here where everything is orderly and as per convention. Putting up a play per se, is not a crime – Tanner points out. It is the underlining meaning of the act that Austen uses. The masks, the stage, the darkness, the role-playing foster an atmosphere of illicit affairs and dubious activity- turning a ‘temple of order’ into a ‘school for scandal’ so to say. It is this corruption of character and corrosive impact on society that Austen brings out. And to drive home her point, she shows the manipulative, mercenary and utterly superficial nature of the Crawfords.

For all of Austen’s conservatism, one of the other aspects that emerges in her novels is her slow disenchantment with society itself. Even while she treats her society as a given, almost immovable (Mansfied Park) against external forces, it was hardly as if she couldn’t detect the evil elements and developing cracks from within. It’s not surprising then that Elizabeth Bennet once she finds an equal companion in Darcy retires to the wonderful estate of Pemberley – away from a certain kind of society that both of them dislike. In Mansfield Park also Austen distinctly points out the corrupting influences and the rot within. However, her belief in her society appears total at this point, and she restores its place of pride, by making someone like Fanny Price the mistress of Mansfield Park.

Austen, however, could also see the limitations of this world and unfairness to women. Emma’s dangerous fetish for match-making is precisely born out of her lack of proper employment. “In Emma’s society, there is no room for manoeuvre, no room for rearrangement, no room for any kind of escape. In short, there is no room…it explains a lot about Emma’s spirited imagination, which is constantly unfixing and refixing things in a most irresponsible way,” writes Tanner. (Here too, Austen’s partiality to ‘sense’ over ‘sensibility’ is evident. Emma’s flightiness and frivolity is juxtaposed against the quiet confidence and wisdom of a Jane Fairfax and Knightley.)

But Tanner believes it is Austen’s last fully published novel, Persuasion which shows so clearly her disillusionment with her society. The theme of prudence v/s impulse continues here too, and Austen does not change her side. She still emphasizes the virtues of stillness over rash movement. This of course alludes to Louisa who in her impulsiveness has a dangerous ‘fall’ – but the author also distinctly becomes softer about matters of the heart. Anne – the quiet, useful heroine of the novel – is ‘persuaded’ by her governess Mrs Russell in good faith to give up her lover Wentworth since he isn’t well-settled enough. Seven years have passed and Anne is still single, and greatly regrets turning down the one man she so desperately loved. Wentworth is now a Captain in the Navy, and doing very well for himself. Many themes unfurl themselves in this setting. Firstly Tanner believes, and this is a clearly emerging picture, that many of the old authorities are now defunct. The society itself is growing increasingly moribund and stagnant. This is evident in the way Austen portrays Anne’s father, as a man given to excess and someone perfectly useless. Similarly Mrs Russell’s advice about Wentworth turns out to be dead wrong, demonstrating clearly that many of the old criterias for judging have become invalid. But the most damning indictment of her society comes from the fact that Austen now sees an alternative set of values and way of life in the Navy. Austen could see that the land-owning elite in England did nothing during the war and it was the Navy which saved the country. She is very appreciative of them in the book, admiring their openness and their sense of gender equality. I didn’t notice it till Tanner points out in the book that perhaps for the first time Austen has written very lyrically about the sea in Persuasion. The end sees Anne moving away from her own society -there isn’t any left ! – and joins Wentworth on the sea. This is a big departure in an Austen novel.

Besides the larger themes that emerge from Tanner’s critique, intermittently, there are also some exquisite readings he makes of certain scenes. Like the one in Pride And Prejudice, where Elizabeth Bennet joins her uncle and aunt to visit Pemberley. It is the most memorable and significant scenes in the novel. Elizabeth’s heart has already softened towards Darcy after his letters, and this entry into his grand mansion is also a metaphorical opening into what she will now see as the real Darcy. Tanner points out how the truest portrait of Darcy in the most private part of the house upstairs; downstairs he is only visible in ‘miniature’ - this implies that the further a man moves away from his house, the most chances there are that he can be misrepresented. “Standing before the large and true image of the real Darcy, Elizabeth has in effect completed her journey.”

Some of Tanner’s observations are speculative, but still there’s a great deal of originality and insight in his readings. And indeed this prompts the reader to think anew about Austen. Certainly her 'small world' had more things going on that one would imagine. And Tanner brings that aspect forth.