Two stories

I have finished reading two books today by two very different sort of writers but both have given me ...if one must use the food-for-thought idiom...they would be dal, I think. I am trying very hard to stay on track and write the novel this year. And suddenly language is leaving me and not even saying ta-ta, bye-bye. But the ladies I read were very good for health.

The first is a book called An Academic Question by Barbara Pym. Pym's life is enough to scare most good girls into never even thinking of writing. Born very early in the last century, she was something of a prodigy writing a futuristic, proto-feminist novel called Some Tame Gazelle at 22. She had already written a novel at 16 because she was inspired by Aldous Huxley's Crome Yellow! Though she tried over and over again the book got published only 14 years later. For about a decade she enjoyed a modest success though her output was steady. After the six novels of that period suddenly she became too unfashionable to publish. She was barely 40 at the time.

Decades followed during which nothing she wrote was acceptable for publishing. She was diagnosed with cancer and had to retire from her regular job. Then the story gets stranger. When she was sixty something everything changed again. In a single issue of the Times Literary Supplement Philip Larkin and another writer praised her work to the high heavens. Her newest book was published within that year and nominated for the bloody Booker. She was famous internationally, her old books were dug up and published, she was translated and feted. She started a new book, the cancer returned and within two years of her return from the literary wilds she died.

However, the book is a wonderful academic novel, very different from David Lodge, Kingsley Amis or Bradbury. All of them seem brash in comparison. Pym's characters are patiently developed with tiny details. The story of the wife of a young academic living in the boonies manages to politely gesture at several absurdities. In this book cheerfully amoral sociologists steal the personal documents of the residents of an old people's home and the scandalousness of this behaviour comes to you slowly but surely. One imagines Lodge (whom I love)setting up jungle drums to make the same point. The whole book is a quiet joke and just what i needed to read since I wrote  three terrible pages today.

The second book I picked up because I needed a murder mystery fix and the bloody bookshop had nothing decent. But lo, loveliness. Listen, if you are an Amanda Cross fan I am sorry but for the last five years I have thought that she was vastly over-rated and have preferred Joan Dobson in the super sub-genre of literary murder mysteries. This is because I had read one Amanda Cross and expired from boredom. Either it was her worst book ever or I was a callow youth. The one I picked up this weekend A Trap for Fools is a straight forward case of defenestration. There is a sentence I have always wanted to say.

The book is witty and cunning. Kate Fensler, English professor and amateur sleuth handles the investigation in an unglamorous, plodding, babu-like manner while having some rather interesting meditations on gender and academia. These ruminations turn out to be actually relevant to the plot (unlike say, Gaudy Night, which was just an erudite Mulder kisses Scully novel). Having no gift for creating either the inner life nor the outer trappings of characters I am grateful for models when they come my way.

Amanda Cross (pen-name of Carolyn Gold Heilbrun) seemed to have one of those irritatingly perfect lives that only American romance writers usually have. She was the first woman in the English department in Columbia University to get a tenured position. She was a feminist theorist and activist. She reportedly practised the ancient rules of the sisterhood and worked hard to make it easier for women to be part of academia. She married her economist husband when she was 19 and had three children. She was wealthy by all standards.

She kept her mystery writer identity secret for years so that it would not affect her academic life. With good reason. The man she bumps off in this book for instance is supposed to be modelled after Edward Said! The outrageously sexist quotes that her male characters spout were sometimes verbatim recordings of her colleagues. When the secret leaked and she became doubly famous. She achieved cult status in both spheres. her mysteries were translated into seven languages. When she walked out of a privileged job in Columbia university in the early 1990s fed-up after decades of sexism, hundreds of fellow academics applauded her ethical position. She continued to write and publish.

Now here is the strangeness. At the age of 77 this queen of clear-eyed common sense committed suicide. She was neither ill nor poor nor unhappy. She just did.

So there you have it. Two modern fables that even Joanna Russ would shudder to write. Sigh.

In other blood-and-gore news I just heard that one of the stories in the forthcoming Zubaan anthology of young women writers is a murder mystery set in Mughal Delhi! Joy joy. Finally!


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