On 6 October 2005, I bought from Landmark a book called One Man's Chorus, a collection of essays by Anthony Burgess. I know the date because the receipt got preserved in between the pages. But I do remember the circumstances under which the book was bought. I was with Express, and the good, old Express office was still on Mount Road. The annual sale was going on at Landmark, which was just across the road.
But there was a problem. The salary hadn't come yet but was most likely to be credited that evening. So armed with the accountant's assurance, Saju and I walked across the road. Books were spread out like an elaborate wedding buffet. We attacked the spread from different directions. Saju, the seeker of depth, went in search of Latin American writing. While I dug for my kind of books which, at the given moment, could have been a rare travelogue or some kind of an anthology.
I chanced upon Burgess' One Man's Chorus and grabbed it. I also picked up Kubrick, a slim biography of the filmmaker written by none other than Michael Herr. (The two books had something in common, which didn't occur to me then: Kubrick had made Burgess' A Clockwork Orange into a film). I also picked up the autobiography of David Blaine, the magician who I idolise. I felt so rich! Only that I didn't have the money. All along, I eagerly waited for a vibration in my pocket: I would be getting a text message as soon as the salary hit my account.
Till the time the text message arrived, I moved around uneasily like a man who had had three bottles of beer and was now unable to locate an urinal. Finally, relief!
"Saju, look what I got, Burgess!"
Saju was plain angry. "You better hand it over to me. Since when did you start reading Burgess?"
When he saw the cover, he was visibly relieved. He had heard the name as Borges, the father of Latin American literature, though his name is pronounced differently by serious students of literature. But then, students of literature don't necessarily have to be lovers or makers of literature.
Having bought whatever we wanted to, money no longer an impediment now, we went to the wine shop next to Melody theatre and spent the rest of the evening there. After downing about six drinks each, we descended, around midnight, on the Safari Hotel in Royapettah. There, as usual, we demolished, between us, 20 aapams and four plates of mutton korma. That was, to tell you the truth, our routine after sunset. But today, both of us felt extra good because of the purchases we had made.
That night, Saju dropped me home and went to his wife. I didn't have a wife then, neither did I have a blog (I wrote my first post exactly 11 days later). So I began reading. Burgess' style sucked my attention in like a striptease artiste, and I kept at it all night. By 5 in the morning, I had finished One Man's Chorus.
Then, as it usually happens, the book lay hidden and forgotten in one of the shelves. There were occasions when I wanted to go back to it, but who is going to look for it? It is not as if I have a huge library -- though it is not a very small one either -- but the problem with hunting for a particular book is what if you are not able to find it? You are instantly heartbroken and you spend the rest of the day asking yourself: Where could it have gone? Who could have taken it? Best not to look for it.
Fortunately, I found the book this Sunday. It had been sitting right under my nose. But then, you are always blind to things under your nose or within your reach. So I read the essays again. My own circumstances had changed drastically since I had last read them -- and now I looked at them in a new light. I had a protective mother back then, but no wife. Today I have a wife who protects me from the vicissitudes of life, but no mother. Back then, I had a column but no book. Today I have a book but no column. And many more such reversals. The only things which remain common are Saju and the salary. He is still my best friend, and I still wait for the phone to vibrate at the beginning of every month.
Anyway, the whole point of this obscenely long post is, as I said, I saw the chapters in a new light. They made so much more sense now. I guess that's true for every good book. As Naipaul once said, "Reading my books once is like taking the dog to the theatre." But there is one particular essay by Burgess that fascinated me equally then as well as now, though I didn't have a blog then to share it. So I am quoting from it now. The essay is titled 'Success':
"I regard my vocation, which I came to very late, as that of a novelist, and I have to consider now whether I have had any real success in it. The trouble with fiction is that there are two ways of looking at it: as a business and as an art. Just up the coast from me at Cannes, sitting glumly but royally on his yatch, is a man who succeeded indubitably with the novel as a business. His name is Harold Robbins. He is, however, not satisfied with having sold a great number of copies of books about sex and violence: he wants to be regarded, on the strength of his evident popularity, as the greatest writer alive. Nobody will so consider him and this makes him somewhat sour. It does, of course, sometimes happen that the most popular novelist is also the best -- Dickens, for instance; perhaps even Hemingway -- but the one doesn't follow from the other. We expect great fiction to be too subtle or complex for popular acceptance. A good writer will often worry if his work goes into too many impressions: he will feel that he has not been subtle or complex enough. He will feel that he has been inattentive to his craft and turned out something like John Braine.
From the business angle I can point, though cautiously, to some small success. In twenty-five years of professional writing I have been able to make a living. Even if this means no more than being able to afford an egg for one's breakfast twice a week it is still a matter of pride: one has called no man sir, except perhaps a New York black cab-driver, and one has been able to telephone from one's bed at eleven in the forenoon and tell someone to go to hell. This living, however, has come from steady application to the craft, a determination to write at least one thousand words a day, and not at all from the kind of reclame that greets a Catch-22 or a Princess Daisy. A lot of the money has come from journalism and from writing scripts for films that were never made. A fairly exiguous amount has come from fiction. If there is any money in the bank it is there because I have gone on bullying a fairly small public into buying a Burgess book every year. I have had, in other words, to keep at it."
Back then, I had found this passage amusing. Today I find it inspiring.