Prose and poetry

Jerry Rao writing in the Indian Express:

Christopher Hitchens died a few months ago. Lovers of English prose were dealt a serious blow. Luckily , he leaves behind “the tender graces of a day that is dead”. “Arguably” can be read as a long, classy epitaph written by one who knew that he was being inexorably beaten by malignant cells within his frame. It is a collection of essays published in various magazines between 2005 and 2011. Most of the essays are book reviews. There are some polemical pieces dealing with contemporary issues and some unforgettable ribald pieces including a not-to-be-missed essay on the solemn subject of fellatio and another one on the lasting gifts of the late unlamented British empire.

Hitchens writes mainly on recent biographies of writers and uses the opportunity to give us his own take on the authors and their output. He deftly weaves together the lives and the works of the writers who are the subjects of these biographies. Contrary to his waspish image, he is almost always quite charitable and in the last analysis he urges us to judge individuals by the range, depth and weight of their outputs and forgive as far as possible the foibles, frailties and weaknesses (and they seem to have many) of the writers themselves. The sheer range of Hitchens’ interests, his depth of understanding and his ability to make uncanny connections simply because he has read so much else and has pondered deeply and with sensitivity over what he has read, is awesome. Hitchens’ book can be a prescribed text for any course on Twentieth Century Western Civilization, especially its Anglo-American sub-set. The writers he brings to life for us include Saul Bellow, Vladimir Nabokov, John Updike, Gore Vidal, Rebecca West, Ezra Pound, George Orwell, Jessica Mitford, Somerset Maugham, Evelyn Waugh, P.G. Wodehouse, Anthony Powell, Graham Greene, Philip Larkin, Stephen Spender, C.L.R. James, Martin Amis, and J.K. Rowling. There are numerous references to W.H. Auden, V.S. Naipaul and Salman Rushdie although there are no separate essays dedicated to them. Hitchens brings to our notice other writers, who normally do not get that much critical attention, whose importance in my estimation went up not only for what they said but for their importance in the troubled history of the century gone by. I am now convinced that it is important to go back and read or re-read John Buchan, Edward Upward, J.G. Ballard, George MacDonald Fraser and Saki. Hitchens has written a brilliant book on Tom Paine. The history of political ideas, particularly in the Anglo-American world has been a subject of enduring fascination for him. In short essays, he conveys to us why he is fascinated with certain figures and invariably he nudges us towards going back to the original sources. Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, the abolitionist John Brown, Abraham Lincoln and Edmund Burke are all part of the menu. His unusual essay on Karl Marx (an honorary Englishman by virtue of his membership of the British Museum library!) is one of the most fascinating pieces I have read. The intrepid and erudite Marx emerges as an extraordinary intellectual who had courage, foresight and intelligence as he supported Lincoln and his war against criticism from a variety of opponents. When he writes about continental writers, Hitchens’ attention is almost always focused on the fight against totalitarianism. There are brilliant pieces on Victor Serge, Arthur Koestler, W.G. Sebald and Isabel Allende. The lampoon-like essay on Andre Malraux is unusual in so far as it is certainly not charitable to the subject.

Hitchens is first and foremost an upper middle class Englishman of the twentieth century. A counter-productive relationship with one’s parents; predictable suffering in the bullying atmosphere of that peculiar institution—the English boarding school; a fascination with homosexuality; an inability to love the totalitarian political traditions of the continent (the Prussian or the Russian variety), an equivocating attitude towards the empire which their great-grandfathers created and which their generation proceeded to lose and a cockamamie sense of humour which is “interiorized”—-a word I have coined to describe a class of humour that can be appreciated only if there is some empathy with an ecosystem of books, manners, histories, institutions, anecdotes and so many other unsaid, unwritten conventions—-all of these Hitchens has in full measure. Hitchens is however not a believer in racialism and eugenics like so many of his intellectual forebears have been, either explicitly or in numerous subterranean ways. In fact, his coverage of Islamism within the larger context of his dislike for organized religion, has earned him some unwarranted criticism. His position is based on the defence of the autonomy and freedom of every individual including the average Tunisian or Iraqi Muslim who is oppressed as much by his/her own culture as by any other force.

Some forty years ago when I was in college and was drooling over Prufrock and Byzantium, a Tambrahm friend of mine gave me good advice. Why was I wasting time on poetry? English prose is God’s gift to all of us. I should spend time on Hazlitt, Boswell and Lamb—so went the advice. Hitchens is a lover of English prose; he overcomes his dislike of religion when he writes a brilliant panegyric on the English Bible (the authorized King James version which as Hitchens points out was largely based on the brilliant work of Tyndale—- not the grubby editions that are now popping up!). As I reached page 749 of this thick volume of essays, I too concluded that there are few pleasures in the world more delightful than reading well-written English prose. Please buy this book. Read it and then leave it by your bedside so that you can re-read bits and pieces at leisure. Sooner or later malignant cells or some insidious viruses are going to get all of us. In the days left to us on this planet, let us savour that which by some stroke of fortune has been granted to us!

My response:

Very interesting….the elegance of good prose being as good as, if not better than, poetry. But Jerry, in general, the appeal of the two is very different. One address the readers’ rational self, and the other, the readers’ emotional self (like all generalizations, this one, too, is sometimes not true.). So why does one have to reject one for the other? Enjoy both!

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