August 9, 2012 | by Jacques Testard
Last August, I interviewed Will Self—whose latest novel Umbrella has just been long-listed for the prestigious Man Booker Prize—in his London home. I had been given two weeks to prepare and I was quite terrified. My terror was warranted; I had spent the last ten days immersed in his hallucinatory fictional worlds, composed of seven novels, three novellas, and countless short stories. Through these parallel and often overlapping fictions, Self has constructed a relentless critique of our institutional failings, hypocritical cultural mores, and political inadequacies. My fears, notwithstanding being intellectually dwarfed, were largely to do with the sheer madness of many of his writings. Here was the writer who, over the years, had invented:
1. A man who wakes up with a vagina behind his left knee and has an affair with his (male) GP (Bull: A Farce);
2. A parallel Earth populated by nymphomaniacal and exhibitionist apes seen through the eyes of its most prominent experimental psychiatrists (Great Apes);
3. The afterlife taking place in the purgatorial London district of “Dulston,” a suburb populated uniquely by senseless, chain-smoking dead people, haunted by their aborted fetuses and old neuroses, and living out the rest of infinity in dire office jobs (How the Dead Live);
4. A postapocalyptic London governed by a religion based on a cab driver named Dave’s insane writings to his estranged son in the 2000s (The Book of Dave).
And then there was the public figure—an acerbic satirist of towering intellect, a giant man of letters with a rhetorical bite strong enough to tear a lesser being apart. By the time I rang on the doorbell, Will Self had, to my mind, transmogrified into The Fat Controller—the Mephistophelian antihero in his My Idea of Fun—ready to shred me from limb to limb for my idiotic questions and inadequate readings.
February 9, 2011 | by Jacques Testard
This is the second installment of Testard’s culture diary. Click here to read part 1.
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?
- 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.
February 9, 2011 | by Jacques Testard
11:45 A.M. I’ve just landed in Delhi. I’m here for the Jaipur Literature Festival, starring Orhan Pamuk, J. M. Coetzee, Richard Ford, and Candace Bushnell. I haven’t been in Delhi for close to three years. The Commonwealth Games have left their mark: the new airport terminal is gigantic, crisp, and shiny. I step outside into the crowd and am greeted with silence. A few years back fifty drivers would have competed for my custom but now they wait in an orderly fashion. My father, who has lived in Delhi for close to a decade, picks me up. Our driver is a Hindu; Ganesh stickers adorn his windscreen.
3:00 P.M. I have an afternoon in the city and have decided to revisit the old town. I go to the Jama Masjid, a legacy of Delhi’s Mughal past. An auto-rickshaw drops me off a few hundred yards away, and I walk up the central walkway toward the towering minarets and white-marble domes, carefully treading my way past the crouching lepers and stray cows. The mild January weather tempers the overwhelming olfactory experience that is India. A man with hennaed hair tells me the mosque is closed for prayers. He asks me if I want to visit a haveli hidden out in Old Delhi. He says it is bigger than the Jama Masjid and has a magical tree hovering in its central courtyard. It will cost me five hundred rupees. I decline.
5:15 P.M. I’m in Khan Market at the Full Circle bookshop. Books are cheaper in India. I’m looking for David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. The girl at the till has not heard of it. She recommends Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts. I decline, this time politely. I forgot how much time one spends declining in India.
8:20 P.M. My father and I visit the Nizamuddin Dargah before dinner. Nizamuddin, a thirteenth-century Sufi saint, is buried here. Millions visit every year. To get there one has to walk through a maze of alleys among scores of bearded pilgrims and rose-garland vendors. The pilgrims buy the flowers and deposit them on the holy man’s grave. Everyone wants to sell me flowers or look after my shoes while I step into the shrine. Pilgrims sit in rows singing Sufi songs. It is colorful, convivial. Children run freely, friends and families chat happily on the periphery. I imagine that churches in medieval Europe would have felt similarly chaotic. We must be the only non-Muslims. Most people don’t seem to notice us and those who do smile and hold out their hands in greeting.