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A Week in Culture: Jacques Testard, Editor, Part 2

February 9, 2011 | by

This is the second installment of Testard’s culture diary. Click here to read part 1.

DAY FOUR

9:47 A.M. I have a mild headache and I am only on life number three of Dalrymple’s Nine Lives. I’m beginning to think that it’s quite difficult to get any reading done at a literary festival. When we got home last night I asked Forty to pick me up at 9:30 A.M. He asked me for two cigarettes as a token of goodwill. I complied. He never turned up.

10:34 A.M. I’m attending a showcase panel on “Why Books Matter” with Kiran Desai and Penguin CEO John Makinson. It’s being filmed for the BBC and the spotlights are on the audience. It’s quite painful on the eyes. According to Sunil Sethi, who presents the only literary show on Indian television, book sales are rising by fifteen to eighteen percent per year in India. I find that very hard to believe. One interjection from the floor offers an interesting insight into this phenomenon. “It is not true Mr. Sethi,” says Mumbaikar. “In Bombay the Encyclopaedia Britannica is very popular but that is because it matches the furniture.” That’s more like it.

1:15 P.M. It’s lunch time. I’ve just had my photo taken by a dozen journalists as a smiling Indian man with neat white hair placed a piece of naan bread onto my plate. I might be in the papers tomorrow—his name is Javed Akhtar and he is a very famous lyricist for Bollywood songs, I’m told. I was an extra in a Bollywood film once. I had to wear a tweed suit at a beach party and pretend to swig from a magnum bottle of vodka.

7:40 P.M. Salman Ahmad has just taken to the stage. The Guardian has described him as Pakistan’s answer to Bono. Kamila Shamsie wrote a piece on the rise of pop music in the Pakistan issue of Granta1 last year on the emergence of pop music in the eighties which charted Ahmad’s rise and his turn to Sufi Islam for inspiration.

10:36 P.M. I’m sharing a drink with Samrat, whose debut novel The Urban Jungle came off the press yesterday. He’s just given me a signed copy of it—it’s a modern rewriting of Kipling’s The Jungle Book. Samrat tells me that Sunil Sethi’s statistics on the growth of the book market in India are inaccurate. An English language best-seller in India sells no more than five thousand copies, according to Samrat. I’ve since been looking online and cannot find any information either way. Surely that’s too low?


DAY FIVE

12:06 P.M. Time for a heavyweight session on “The Crisis in American Fiction” with Richard Ford, Jay McInerney and Junot Diaz moderated by Mr. Martin Amis. I’m sure the topic was just an excuse to get these writers on stage together.

12:07 P.M. Amis: “How does the crisis in American fiction manifest itself? Are there more panic attacks in the offices of The New York Review of Books? Are there more brawls in the literary bars of Greenwich Village?”

12:08 P.M Ford: “American fiction is more diverse and successful with readers than it has ever been.” Hear, hear.

12:20 P.M. Martin Amis posits that Saul Bellow’s Humboldt’s Gift would no longer make The New York Times best-seller list because readers can no longer stomach work of that complexity. (By the way, Amis once wrote: “Bellow’s first name is a typo: that ‘a’ should be an o.”)

12:21 P.M. Richard Ford retorts that David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest is a prime example of the success of the contemplative novel. McInerney cites Jonathan Franzen’s recent pantheonization as further proof of the success of literary fiction today. Junot acquiesces and says that the novel does not stop with literary fiction. Martin Amis shuffles awkwardly on his seat and begins to roll a cigarette.

12:48 P.M. Junot takes center stage again. “Is ‘the crisis in fiction’ not just the crisis of the white American male?” he asks. “Goddamn it! Black women! They’ve fucked everything up.”

3:30 P.M. Jaipur reawakens. J.M. Coetzee has just finished a majestic reading of a story about feral cats in front of an awe-struck audience. He has managed to keep an Indian audience completely still and silent for an entire hour. That aside, his reading was very strong. His prose is rhythmical, his diction is impeccable, and the story, as ever, was captivating. He also has an aura of greatness about him. It’s probably because he never speaks in public so every time he does, the world listens.

11:20 P.M. I am sitting with Satya Bhabha, a Los Angeles-based actor. We met in the queue for the toilet. His father is Homi K. Bhabha, the literary theorist. Anyone who ever studied literature at college will remember his books fondly, particularly The Location of Culture. Satya is due to play Saleem Sinai in the forthcoming adaptation of Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, which is being shot in Sri Lanka next month. His nose is not big enough to play Saleem but I guess Salman can be sure that he at least gets the novel.

DAY SIX

11.30 A.M. It’s the fourth day of the festival and I have just woken up. I still haven’t interviewed Dalrymple and I still haven’t finished his book. It’s official: no-one reads at literary festivals. I blame Dalrymple himself for imposing a free bar every evening.

12:40 P.M. I’m just catching the tail end of a talk on Tamil pulp fiction. Apparently it’s very popular down south. One writer, Rajesh Kumar, has written and published more than 1,250 novels and 2,000 short stories. In 90s, the boom years of Tamil pulp publishing, he sold millions of books every year. The covers are excellent.

5:05 P.M. While Candace Bushell holds forth in the main tent, Coetzee and Zagajewski get under way in the lesser Mughal Tent on the topic of imperial english accompanied by Ahdaf Soueif and Mrinal Pande. The Mughal Tent has been erected next to the palace’s stables and smells accordingly. I wonder—has Coetzee read Candace?

5:35 P.M. Jaipur is silent again as Coetzee declares: “I cannot say I feel at home in English. When I write in English I write in someone else’s language, in someone else’s mother tongue."

9:20 P.M. All meals here are buffet-style. You pick up a plate, help yourself to Indian food and dart for the nearest table space. Tonight, I’m randomly sitting with writer and editor Gabriel Moro, the editor of Norway’s biggest literary magazine, Bokvennen, and Irvine Welsh, author of Trainspotting. Last time I was in Jaipur I shared a beer in a bar with a Californian artist and some Japanese graphic designers. I’m not sure which is most incongruous. Jaipur is the eleventh biggest city in India—the equivalent of Detroit in the US, Saint-Etienne in France and Coventry in Britain. What’s the closest thing to a literary festival in Detroit?

12:04 A.M. I’m being driven home by a different auto driver this evening. He has offered me hashish, heroin and girls. I told him that Jay McInerney was speaking in the morning. I think he might attend.

DAY SEVEN

11:00 A.M. Another talk featuring Martin Amis has just ended, this time on “The New Non-Fiction.” A quick look at his biography tell me that Amis has written one non-fiction book in the last decade—The Second Plane (2008)—and that he is sixty-one years old. Other panelists include David Finkel and Basharat Peer, author of a gripping memoir on growing up in Kashmir, Curfewed Night, which I cannot recommend more highly. William Dalrymple slips away before I can collar him.

11:07 A.M. No sign of last night’s driver as Amis (again) and McInerney get under way on the topic of “Writing the 1980s.”

11:24 A.M. Jay McInerney says cocaine is an interesting metaphor for that decade which he describes as an endless treadmill of consumption: “No matter how much you consume, you are never satiated.” I don’t think cocaine exists in India but consumption is certainly on the up. I wonder if the Colombian cartels are plotting a mass invasion of the Indian market.

2:55 P.M. Tehelka editor and novelist Tarun Tejpal is on stage: “I don’t want you to go home and sleep well after reading my work. I want you to stay awake and be really unhappy," he says. Incidentally, has anyone seen Gaspar Noé’s Enter the Void?

4:35 P.M. The festival has just ended with Vikram Seth reading a selection of his poems in front of enraptured schoolgirls and aged Sikhs alike, ending fittingly on “The Frog and the Nightingale." He’s a very personable character and likes to drink hot buttered rum. He’s also writing a sequel to A Suitable Boy. He explains the delay: “I’m actually a very lazy person. Most of the time, I’m happy to sit around and stare. Or watch bad TV soaps.”

6:12 P.M. I’m at home, packing. I’m catching the 6:00 A.M. train back to Delhi in the morning and then I fly home to London the next day. On my way home, I stop by the festival bookshop and pick up a copy of Donald Barthelme’s Forty Stories introduced by Dave Eggers. It cost me 300 rupees (just over $6). How it made its way here I shall never know.

Jacques Testard is the cofounder of The White Review, a London-based arts and literature quarterly.

Annotations

  1. I have just realised I am plugging Granta in The Paris Review’s pages. I studied at Oxford anyway and Granta is a Cambridge magazine. Lorin, I’m on your side.

9 COMMENTS

8 Comments

  1. Amina Elahi | February 10, 2011 at 12:35 pm

    I really, really enjoyed reading this.

  2. Aaj | February 14, 2011 at 2:02 pm

    Fine,but some peculiar disdain or misunderstanding of India implicit in your words. Why the shock that a book of short stories by Donald Bartheleme could have made its way to India? Is it so impenetrable a place?

  3. Jacques Testard | February 15, 2011 at 3:18 am

    Dear Aaj,

    Just to clarify the Barthelme point — he died in 1989 and there was no mention of him at any stage during the Festival, and the bookshop only stocked writers with a presence in Jaipur. So why was his book on sale at the JLF? He is also, from personal experience, a relatively obscure literary figure, at least in London, where I live.

    Jacques

  4. sushant | February 15, 2011 at 4:34 am

    I too sensed some thinly-veiled antipathy towards India.

    But given that he was on the hunt for Dalrymple, whose reputation as a carpetbagging twat was solidified with the release of City of Djinns, perhaps that should come as no surprise.

    There are few things more nauseating than the ‘Englishmen finds India mildly disgusting but mostly amusing’ narrative. What a comic lot we Indians are, eh, Mr. Gable?

  5. Rowena | February 15, 2011 at 5:31 am

    Ummmm… I think you’ll find Jacques is French.

  6. sushant | February 15, 2011 at 9:22 pm

    If that’s true, my mistake. Given the fact he’s based in London, I presumed he was. But honestly I don’t think that makes much of a difference. Change ‘Englishmen’ to ‘westerner’ and the effect remains.

    It’s possible I’m being too harsh on Mr. Testard, but I would have loved it if he had pursued India with some more insight. If he experiences India with little more than a smirk, perhaps that’s his loss.

  7. Aaj | February 18, 2011 at 2:32 pm

    Donald Bartheleme is obscure now?

    I didn’t mention your skepticism of rising book sales or your comment that Indian audiences cannot sit still, as if they were different from audiences at any other open-air reading in the world.

    This is a tone thing. Hard to describe exactly, but your attitude is clear. This was interesting and you have an appealing, straightforward way of writing, I just wish you wouldn’t give short thrift to India, which isn’t an amusing, strange Bartheleme-less land, but rather a lot like America and especially London, which has to be 40% Indian by now anyway.

  8. yajiv | September 1, 2014 at 4:05 pm

    I just wanted to chip in on the last few lines and the (not so recent, admittedly) comments: I also think there’s a barely submerged wry amusement at the idea that Barthelme might be on sale in India free of whatever hip trappings the author expected, but I’m also somewhat sympathetic – but it’s more something to be hugely commended when, in comparison the absolute dearth of interesting books on sale in British airports, you can find things like Paul Celan and academic books on postcolonialism nestled next to EL James in Trivandrum airport. However ‘it’ got there, it’s a triumph.

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