Zee Jaipur Literature Festival 2019: History, biographies, storytelling in focus on Day 2

With the first day of the Zee Jaipur Literature Festival 2019 closing rather unceremoniously after the weather took a bit of a dramatic turn, day two was all about that golden winter sunshine and abundant politeness.

Markus Zusak, author of the beloved The Book Thief, made his debut at the Jaipur Literature Festival to much fanfare and a book signing session that seemingly lasted for hours.

In conversation with author John Zubrzycki, and with a venue packed with people of all ages (and sprinkled a bit too generously with ones who just wouldn’t/couldn’t contain their ‘awws’ or ‘how cutes’ throughout the session), Zusak talked about his new book, 13 years in the making, Bridge of Clay, the pressure of expectations and power of storytelling.

Set in western Sydney, it tells the story of five brothers who bring each other up in a world run by their own rules in the absence of their father. Zusak said he always wanted to write a suburban epic and how the story, and even the narrator, changed and developed over the course of the decade it took him to finish his work. An average of fewer than two words a day, as he recalled.

He also touched upon how deeply and emotionally involved he gets with the characters and the settings of his stories, practically living them. Zusak almost gave up on the book multiple times, but always found his way back somehow; saying that as much as it is important for a writer to take it easy on themselves, one also needs to cultivate an iron will to progress.

Zee Jaipur Literature Festival 2019: History, biographies, storytelling in focus on Day 2

Markus Zusak, author of the beloved The Book Thief, made his debut at the Jaipur Literature Festival to much fanfare. Image via Twitter/@ZeeJLF

Talking of an iron will, a panel of veteran writers took to the stage a little later in the day to discuss literary biographies. Zachary Leader, the biographer of Saul Bellow; Jenny Uglow, the biographer of Hogarth and Edward Lear; and Andrea Di Robilant, biographer of Hemingway, were in conversation with Patrick French, biographer of VS Naipaul and Doris Lessing.

Robilant talked about how he came across the remarkable story of Hemingway's love affair with both the city of Venice and the muse he found there — 18-year-old Adriana Ivancich who inspired the man 30 years her senior to complete his great final work. He felt that the story was not comprehensively explored and decided to write a book about it. Interestingly enough, Robilant, whose great uncle moved in Hemingway's close circle, had met Ivancich briefly in his childhood: a melancholic figure then who, like Hemingway, ended up taking her own life.

Read on Firstpost: Andrea di Robilant on tracing Hemingway's relationship with his muse Adriana, travelling, and finding new stories

Leader talked about how he is interested in investigating what it is to be the person he writing about. Working on Bellow’s biography, the author went through troves of letters and documents — over 350 boxes — to discover what he could find out about an individual many would describe as a difficult man. Although the research was extensive and interviewing people close to Bellow not the most straightforward task, Leader's only complaint was perhaps his forced visits to all the terrible restaurants Bellow used to frequent.

Uglow spoke of her interest in the Restoration period and characters, and discussed the many biographical books she had worked on, including Hogarth, who spent considerable time travelling across India.

When French touched upon the importance of travelling to physical places related to the subjects of biography, Uglow mentioned how it was not practical, but certainly illuminating. Responding to the same, Robilant recounted the story of how Hemingway had returned to the place where he was shot during the War and buried in a hole the shrapnel he had carried with him throughout his life. (The plan was also to defecate close by, so as to leave a part of himself at the place. But didn't quite work out.) When Robilant visited the place, he ran into none other than the guy who had given Hemingway the shovel to dig the hole — one of the only few eyewitnesses of the ceremony, now 94 years old.

The session was concluded with a brief yet curious notion of the future of biographies. More specifically, how in the future will biographers will get access to something as vital as a subject’s correspondences, which are now largely channeled through emails and messaging services like WhatsApp, rather in physical documents.

A similar topic came up once again in the session titled ‘In Defence of History’, where British historian Richard Evans, offered a defence of the importance of his craft, along with historians Dan Jones, Ruby Lal, Sanjeev Sanyal and Stewart Gordon, in conversation with David Olusoga.

Evans talked about his works and how he broke from the conventional ideas of his days to carve his own path when it came to documenting history. Both he and Gordon touched upon the threat the internet poses in today's post-truth world and what it meant for accurately recording history.

Sanyal was of the opinion that right to interpretation should be absolute, given the facts are accurate. He also talked about the mainstream biases, the space for rewriting history from different perspectives, and the concerning issue of how we end up using history.

Jones touched upon how he swings between optimism and pessimism looking at the state of how history is dealt with within today's world, where people can pick a side of an argument and just gather evidence to support it.

Lal describes how everything is in question when we talk about history — who is speaking, what are the grounds for a particular narrative, and in what circumstances the facts themselves were produced. She and Sanyal also talked about the need more historical narratives about women of India.

Moderated quite skillfully by Olusoga, the session came to an end with all agreeing on how there is a huge appetite for learning history among people across the globe, especially the young; and once again, the notion of how silicon valley might end up controlling how histories are told in the future.

The day closed with an absolutely delightful session with Alexander McCall Smith, in conversation with the wonderful Bee Rowlatt.

The exceptionally polite McCall Smith, flaunting some marvellous trousers, talked about his illustrious career as an author of over 100 novels, including The No 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, 44 Scotland Street, The Sunday Philosophy Club, Corduroy Mansions and the Professor Dr von Igelfeld Entertainments, with more lined up for future releases.

McCall Smith talked about how The No 1 Ladies' Detective Agency had its origins in a short story which expanded into 19 books and counting; and how he avoids explicit violence in his detective books.

Also read: Alexander McCall Smith on 20 years of The No 1 Ladies Detective Agency, and writing a much loved character

He also touched upon the subjects of expensive whiskeys; wrong people always winning competitions; how stories just subconsciously flow through him, sometimes even surprising himself; his friendship with neighbour Ian Rankin (and how a character based on him in one of McCall Smith’s books gets hit with an arrow); his many colourful characters and daily writing routine (write early, write regularly).

Apart from what he described as Rowlatt tactfully asking him when he will die, and a group of monkeys distracting a good of lot foreigners, the highlight of the session was a story he told of his visit to Italy which involved him driving a bulldozer around with a priest and helping a winemaker out in not the most legal ways.

With the sun slowly sinking, one could once again feel the chill in the air. Another day down, three to go.

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Updated Date: Jan 29, 2019 15:35:39 IST

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