Telling Tales by Amit Chaudhuri: The principle mode of our epoch isn't business, but business

Deborah Levy is charmed by Amit Chaudhuri's introspective and entertaining columns and essays, which range from busyness, to James Joyce and Kokata.

Telling Tales: Selected Writings, 1993-2013
Amit Chaudhuri
Union Books, 320pp, £18.99

What is writing? This seems to be the question implicitly being asked in Telling Tales, a selection of Amit Chaudhuri’s engaging, introspective and entertaining columns for the Telegraph in Kolkata, as well as his other nonfiction writing. Written over 20 years, they showcase his ability to reach a diverse audience without losing intellectual verve.

In “Doing Busyness”, Chaudhuri tells a tale about time and the ways in which our status is supposed to be promoted if we never have enough of it. But does being “busy” dull our senses and flatten our imagination? Chaudhuri, who must have quite a lot on his plate (he is an acclaimed novelist, professor of contemporary literature at the University of East Anglia and composer of music), reckons that the “principal mode of our epoch isn’t business, but busyness”. He suggests that being less busy provides “special opportunities for receptivity to the world”.

I couldn’t agree more. There is nothing more boring or begging than the performance of busyness, yet it’s easy to see what it is we fear by being seen to have time on our hands: “To not be busy is, in a sense, to be superfluous.” To be blanked by someone who is always “in a meeting” is more complicated than we might admit. Chaudhuri tells us that a meeting is “a way of indicating a hierarchy of conversations”. In a flattening culture of targets and outcomes, have we become senior managers of our inner lives, too? Chaudhuri picks up on this theme again in “What Is an Adventure?” and astutely answers his question: “when chance and creativity gain precedence over outcome and reward”.

Chaudhuri took a chance with the content of his column over the years and decided that it was possible to write about anything at all. We can be assured that his attention will always fall in an interesting place, from the complexity of being described as a post-colonial writer – “Both the affiliations and the oppositionality of the ‘post-colonial writer’ seemed too clearly defined” – to the way people form queues to purchase the savoury snack chanachur and onwards to the idea that both cats and women are unfathomable to men; not to mention their fortunate feline position in a culture of crazed celebrity gawping: “Cats cultivate privacy and escape the human gaze in a way that celebrities no longer can.”

“A Sense of Elsewhere” tells us of a visit to New York in 1979, when it was “the city of Ginsberg and Crane”. If this city (at the time in decline) was the new world, it was as if Chaudhuri “was trespassing on the remnants of a civilisation; the buildings on the avenues on the Lower East Side had a Jurassic air”. I am not going to list 20 years’ worth of a newspaper column but I urge you to enjoy the quiet humour put to work in Chaudhuri’s intimate and masterly short essays on everyday life in the changing, volatile city of Kolkata.

The last section of the book treats us to a selection of literary journalism and critical writing. As in the best conversations with a scholarly and amiable companion, we can move from cats to the melancholy of Walter Benjamin. “A Strange Likeness” pays homage to Susan Sontag’s incandescent essay “Under the Sign of Saturn” while giving us another spin on Benjamin’s sensibility:

When I look at Benjamin’s face . . . I realise that I don’t see first and foremost a “western” man; I see someone familiar, someone who also could have been a Bengali living at any time between the end of the 19th and the middle of the 20th centuries . . . The features, characterised not by nationality or caste but by introspection, gentility and the privileges of childhood, mark him out as a bhadralok – the Bengali word for the indigenous, frequently bespectacled bourgeoisie that emerged in the 19th century.

“There Was Always Another” is his intriguingly titled introduction to Shiva Naipaul’s first two novels, Firefliesand The Chip- Chip Gatherers, written as forewords for the Penguin Classics editions. Here, Chaudhuri reflects on the varying subjectivities of writing families (William and Henry James, the Brontës, the Tagore family) and points out that they are usually “quite odd in their intensities”. What kind of sense do siblings make of the same material – parents, home, country? He correctly observes that the excellent novels by Naipaul (born Shivadhar Srinivasa Naipaul) were read “lazily” by critics. Perhaps it was because his fiction was imbued with a combination of “comic mischief and pain” that it proved so difficult for him to jump out of the gigantic shadow of his elder brother, V S Naipaul.

And something else, too: “There’s an anarchy of will in Shiva Naipaul’s world which thwarts its characters’ imaginations.” Unlike his brother, “who is at once haunted and tormented by a sense of completeness deriving from his lost Hindu, historical past, Shiva Naipaul has no real conviction in authenticity or wholeness; it’s almost out of this state of negation that he creates his variously populated novelistic world.” Chaudhuri considers Shiva Naipaul’s first two novels to be masterpieces – by which he means “works that impeccably adhere to the most difficult of literary conventions while also uniquely subverting and exceeding them”.

If Shiva Naipaul deserves to be reread, Chaudhuri suggests that Roland Barthes could also do with a reappraisal. Barthes’s assorted writing should not just be viewed “through the prism of semiotics”, because he “is genuinely someone in whom categories such as poet, fiction writer, essayist and critic break down”. Chaudhuri insists that what Barthes (despite his intimidating academic credentials) desired from language was “liberation”, the joy and sensation found in the uncertainty of life. Not only is his writing “a revelation”, it is more comprehensible “than most newspaper reports and book reviews”.

Chaudhuri’s intellectual project is not so much to cross academic boundaries as to remove the sign that says: “No playing on the grass”. Like Barthes (and Lacan), he sees merit in concentrating less on the meaningful and more on the apparently meaningless. For this reason I relished every tale and essay here, not least because Chaudhuri subtly politicises the ways in which both writing and writers are culturally placed, described and sanitised.

He quotes James Joyce trying to wriggle out of the “meaningful” and take it somewhere else –often to somewhere rooted in the mysteries of everyday life, whether it be on the streets of Dublin or the streets of Kolkata. “When asked by an interviewer if Molly Bloom’s climactic monologue in Ulysses was an example of ‘stream of consciousness’, he reportedly said, “When I hear the word ‘stream’ . . . what I think of is urine and not the contemporary novel . . . Molly Bloom . . . would never have indulged in anything so refined as a stream of consciousness.”

Deborah Levy is the author of “Black Vodka” (And Other Stories, £12) and “Swimming Home” (Faber & Faber, £7.99), shortlisted for the 2012 Man Booker Prize

Case study: Chaudhuri explores the new Kolkata. Photograph: Ashok Sinha / Gallery Stock.

This article first appeared in the 19 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Why aren’t young people working

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Celluloid Dreams: are film scores the next area of serious musical scholarship?

John Wilson has little time for people who don't see the genius at work in so-called "light music".

When John Wilson walks out on to the stage at the Royal Albert Hall in London, there is a roar from the audience that would be more fitting in a football stadium. Before he even steps on to the conductor’s podium, people whistle and cheer, thumping and clapping. The members of his orchestra grin as he turns to acknowledge the applause. Many soloists reaching the end of a triumphant concerto performance receive less ecstatic praise. Even if you had never heard of Wilson before, the rock-star reception would tip you off that you were about to hear something special.

There is a moment of silence as Wilson holds the whole hall, audience and orchestra alike, in stasis, his baton raised expectantly. Then it slices down and the orchestra bursts into a tightly controlled mass of sound, complete with swirling strings and blowsy brass. You are instantly transported: this is the music to which Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers danced, the music of George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, which reverberated around the cauldron of creativity that was Hollywood of the early 20th century, when composers were as sought after as film directors.

Wilson’s shows are tremendously popular. Since he presented the MGM musicals programme at the Proms in 2009, which was watched by 3.5 million people on TV and is still selling on DVD, his concerts have been among the first to sell out in every Proms season. There are international tours and popular CDs, too. But a great deal of behind-the-scenes work goes into bringing this music – much of which had been lost to history – back to life. There are familiar tunes among the complex arrangements that he and his orchestra play, to be sure, but the music sounds fresher and sharper than it ever does on old records or in movies. Whether you’re a film fan or not, you will find something about the irrepressible energy of these tunes that lifts the spirits.

Sitting in an armchair in the conductor’s room beneath the Henry Wood Hall in south London, Wilson looks anything but energetic. “Excuse my yawning, but I’ve been up since three o’clock this morning,” he says. This is a short break in a hectic rehearsal schedule, as he puts his orchestra through its paces in the lead-up to its appearance at the 2016 Proms. Watching him at work before we sat down to talk, I saw a conductor who was far from sluggish. Bobbing on the balls of his feet, he pushed his players to consider every detail of their sound, often stopping the musicians to adjust the tone of a single note or phrase. At times, his whole body was tense with the effort of communicating the tone he required.

The programme that Wilson and his orchestra are obsessing over at the moment is a celebration of George and Ira Gershwin, the American songwriting partnership that produced such immortal songs as “I Got Rhythm”, “’S Wonderful” and “Funny Face”, as well as the 1934 opera Porgy and Bess. Though it might all sound effortless when everyone finally appears in white tie, huge amounts of preparation go into a John Wilson concert and they start long before the orchestra begins to rehearse.

“Coming up with the idea is the first step,” he says. “Then you put a programme together, which takes a great deal of time and thought and revision. You can go through 40 drafts until you get it right. I was still fiddling with the running order two weeks ago. It’s like a three-dimensional game of chess – one thing changes and the whole lot comes down.”

Wilson, 44, who also conducts the more conventional classical repertoire, says that his interest in so-called light music came early on. “When you’re a kid, you don’t know that you shouldn’t like the Beatles, or you shouldn’t like Fred Astaire, or whatever,” he says. “You just like anything that’s good. So I grew up loving Beethoven and Brahms and Ravel and Frank Sinatra and the Beatles.” At home in Gateshead – he still has the Geordie accent – the only music in the house was “what was on the radio and telly”, and the young boy acquired his taste from what he encountered playing with local brass bands and amateur orchestras.

He had the opposite of the hothoused, pressured childhood that we often associate with professional musicians. “Mine were just nice, lovely, normal parents! As long as I wore clean underwear and finished my tea, then they were happy,” he recalls. “I was never forced into doing music. My parents used to have to sometimes say, ‘Look, you’ve played the piano enough today; go out and get some fresh air’ – things like that.” Indeed, he received barely any formal musical education until he went to the Royal College of Music at the age of 18, after doing his A-levels at Newcastle College.

The title of the concert he conducted at this year’s Proms was “George and Ira Gershwin Rediscovered”, which hints at the full scale of Wilson’s work. Not only does he select his music from the surviving repertoire of 20th-century Hollywood: in many cases, he unearths scores that weren’t considered worth keeping at the time and resurrects the music into a playable state. At times, there is no written trace at all and he must reconstruct a score by ear from a ­recording or the soundtrack of a film.

For most other musicians, even experts, it would be an impossible task. Wilson smiles ruefully when I ask how he goes about it. “There are 18 pieces in this concert. Only six of them exist in full scores. So you track down whatever materials survive, whether they be piano or conductors’ scores or recordings, and then my colleagues and I – there are four of us – sit down with the scores.” There is no hard and fast rule for how to do this kind of reconstruction, he says, as it depends entirely on what there is left to work with. “It’s like putting together a jigsaw, or a kind of archaeology. You find whatever bits you can get your hands on. But the recording is always the final word: that’s the ur-text. That is what you aim to replicate, because that represents the composer’s and lyricist’s final thoughts.” There is a purpose to all this effort that goes beyond putting on a great show, though that is a big part of why Wilson does it. “I just want everyone to leave with the thrill of having experienced the sound of a live orchestra,” he says earnestly. “I tell the orchestra, ‘Never lose sight of the fact that people have bought tickets, left the house, got on the bus/Tube, come to the concert. Give them their money’s worth. Play every last quaver with your lifeblood.’”

Besides holding to a commitment to entertain, Wilson believes there is an academic justification for the music. “These composers were working with expert ­arrangers, players and singers . . . It’s a wonderful period of music. I think it’s the next major area of serious musical scholarship.”

These compositions sit in a strange, in-between place. Classical purists deride them as “light” and thus not worthy of attention, while jazz diehards find the catchy syncopations tame and conventional. But he has little time for anyone who doesn’t recognise the genius at work here. “They’re art songs, is what they are. The songs of Gershwin and Porter and [Jerome] Kern are as important to their period as the songs of Schubert . . . People who are sniffy about this material don’t really know it, as far as I’m concerned, because I’ve never met a musician of any worth who’s sniffy about this.

Selecting the right performers is another way in which Wilson ensures that his rediscovered scores will get the best possible presentation. He formed the John Wilson Orchestra in 1994, while he was still studying at the Royal College of Music, with the intention of imitating the old Hollywood studio orchestras that originally performed this repertoire. Many of the players he works with are stars of other European orchestras – in a sense, it is a supergroup. The ensemble looks a bit like a symphony orchestra with a big band nestled in the middle – saxophones next to French horns and a drum kit in the centre. The right string sound, in particular, is essential.

At the rehearsal for the Gershwin programme, I heard Wilson describing to the first violins exactly what he wanted: “Give me the hottest sound you’ve made since your first concerto at college.” Rather than the blended tone that much of the classical repertoire calls for, this music demands throbbing, emotive, swooping strings. Or, as Wilson put it: “Use so much vibrato that people’s family photos will shuffle across the top of their TVs and fall off.”

His conducting work spans much more than his Hollywood musical reconstruction projects. Wilson is a principal conductor with the Royal Northern Sinfonia and has performed or recorded with most of the major ensembles in Britain. And his great passion is for English music: the romanticism of Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Delius needs advocates, too, he says. He insists that these two strands of his career are of equivalent importance. “I make no separation between my activities conducting classical music and [film scores]. They’re just all different rooms in the same house.” 

The John Wilson Orchestra’s “Gershwin in Hollywood” (Warner Classics) is out now

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser