Monday, July 03, 2006

The unknown writer: That Summer in Paris

There was something serendipitous about reading Abha Dawesar's That Summer in Paris shortly after finishing Philip Roth's Everyman, given that much in Dawesar's book is reminiscent of Roth and his work. There are, first, the superficial connections: her protagonist is a prolific, world-famous 75-year-old author, a Nobel laureate (Roth hasn't won the big prize yet, but don't bet against it happening) named Prem Rustum (ahem, note initials). Two of the chapter epigraphs in That Summer in Paris are from Roth novels: "When you admire a writer, you become curious. You look for his secret. The clues to his puzzle" from The Ghost Writer, and "Sex is also revenge on death" from The Dying Animal. And in a playful touch there's even a cameo appearance by Nathan Zuckerman, the narrator of some of Roth's finest books.

These are of course tenuous links – if you have to take the simplistic route of relating Prem Rustum to a real-life writer, you could just as easily make a case for V S Naipaul or a couple of others. And it isn't necessary anyway. Prem doesn't come across as a derivative character, and besides the setting is evocative of a very different era – a time when literature was a more exclusive preserve than it is today and it was possible for three writers to be singled out as the most accomplished novelists in the world (Prem is hailed as one of the "three Ps").

More to the point, Dawesar's book covers some of the themes that Roth has often dealt with over his long and distinguished career: a preoccupation with aging, with the decay of the human body (something that forms the basis of Everyman); the connection between sex and death; the dichotomy between a writer's work and the person he really is behind the words. That Summer in Paris is a cool, elegantly written (if occasionally affected) story about the relationship an artist has with his work and with the people whose lives are profoundly affected by it.

The story begins with Prem, who lives in New Jersey, making his first tentative forays into the world of the Internet. On a dating website, he finds the following invitation:

Spiritual twenty-something aspiring novelist with hot buns and yoga body seeks another. Write like Prem Rustum, think like Prem Rustum, speak like Prem Rustum, be Prem Rustum. Worship at his altar like I do.

These words are written by a young woman named Maya. (Note: this is a name that's been annoyingly overused in Indian fiction in English, especially when the character is intended to be illusory or symbolic in some way. But here it performs the function of inside joke – this Maya is an American whose father named her thus because he loved Indian literature!) Prem replies to her message disclosing his identity; naturally she refuses to believe him at first, but then they meet, and when he learns she's going to Paris on a fellowship he finalises what had thus far been a sketchy plan to go there himself.

In Paris, Maya gets into a casual relationship with a Frenchman while Prem spends most of his time with his friend Pascal Boutin (a famous writer himself, another of the three Ps), but the two of them are clearly drawn towards each other. They go to museums, discuss painting and sculpture and the private and public lives of artists. All this is intercut with flashbacks to Prem's various relationships and how they impacted or were impacted by his writing: most importantly, the deep childhood love between him and his sister, which turned into incest (and became the subject of one of his most popular books); and an encounter with two Lolitas during a long and erotic summer in Paris 10 years earlier. I enjoyed the way Dawesar presents these interludes, quietly slipping them in between the pages of the present-day narrative. (The effect is very like scenes in Fellini's 8 1/2, where for instance a glimpse of a large woman's legs, a conversation with a priest and the sounds of birds chirping in the background would take Guido back to his childhood encounter with the prostitute Saraghina.)

Prem's writing has played a therapeutic part in Maya's life, but gradually she comes to see the difference between the man and his work. "You aren't the person who healed me," she tells him, "You are now a person I know. But what healed me was the unknown writer. And the real you is as vulnerable as I am." That Summer in Paris is built on this uneasy relationship and the effect it has on both their lives.

This isn't a book that will have universal appeal. The subject matter is such that it will be of most interest to people who are enthusiastic about writing themselves. Nor is that the only barrier: some of the discussions about painting and sculpture went over my head, I was puzzled (to say the least) with the bit on Prem’s elaborate “blueprints” for his novels, and then there's that little cheese-tasting scene in a restaurant where the cheese is a lot more than just cheese. But on the whole there's a lightness of touch here that makes it easy to get through. Some of the better moments are the ones between the aging authors, Prem and Pascal. These are giants among men of letters, but they are old now and a little weary, one senses, of long, indepth conversations about their art. The general tone of their talks is laidback, not necessarily what one would expect from erudite writers, but it rings true. ("It's getting nearer and nearer, this death business," one says offhandedly to the other when the subject of an ex-wife dying from cancer comes up.) However, the basic egotism and insecurity of their tribe is also very well depicted in their banter, as it is in the tetchy exchange between Prem and his agent early in the story.

The story should strike a chord for many readers who have been strongly affected by someone's work and then felt a measure of disappointment (or at least a missed connection) on meeting their idol in person. Such kinships often turn out to have fragile foundations, for however much one might identify with the work of a particular writer, no person can ever claim to have the complete measure of another. (Of course, this applies outside of the writer-reader context too. Some of our deepest relationships with other people are formed when we find ourselves on the same wavelength regarding issues we feel strongly about; but the true test of those relationships is whether they survive once the important differences come to light.)

Early on, there's an example of facile connections being made between an artist's work and his real life: an online article about Prem Rustum wonders why he is so inarticulate about sex in his writing, when he is known to have had a long line of liaisons in real life. In a sense, the rest of That Summer in Paris is an answer to this question. It’s about writers and readers sparring uncertainly, discovering things about each other
but even more vitally, about themselves.

P.S. Some interesting photos on Dawesar's site, based on things and places mentioned in the book.


  1. The story should strike a chord for many readers who have been strongly affected by someone's work and then felt a measure of disappointment (or at least a missed connection) on meeting their idol in person.

    Proust's novel contains a beautiful description about this whole feeling. Its in the second volume, when the narrator finally gets to meet his childhood idol, the writer Bergotte in person and is extremely disappointed with everything he sees...

    Proust then goes on to conclude that "a book is the product of a different self from the self we manifest in our habits, in our social life, in our vices."

    I wonder if he would have the same thing about blogs... :)

    Are you writing about Everyman too in future?

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  6. Good stuff, hope we see it, and more of your stuff over at Desicritics:)