Satish Padmanabhan in Outlook India:
It’s the coldest day of the year in Jaipur. Schools have been closed for five days but there are many children standing in a queue that cuts across the entire Front Lawns of Diggi Palace, breathing out little puffs of white vapour, clutching copies of Interpreter of Maladies or The Lowland to get them signed by Jhumpa Lahiri. She can’t keep pace with the number of hands thrusting books at her, so her minders collect them and Jhumpa signs them in assembly-line mode. She has just had a session on The Global Novel with the Ethiopian writer Maaza Mengiste, Jonanthan Franzen, Jim Crace and Chinese-British writer Xioaola Guo. Franzen starts to talk about how, for someone like him, born in 1959 in Midwest America, there was only the American Novel, and how in his lifetime so much American culture has been exported. He suddenly stops mid-sentence, pauses to look down at his foot, looks up again at moderator Chandrahas Chaudhury and resumes speaking: “There’s no real point to that statement but you cornered me with a question. Maybe you can come back later for some deep thoughts on the history of the novel and how television relates to all of this.”
Franzen is a big man with a slow, gentle demeanour and a deep, American Midwest drawl, who rarely makes eye contact and speaks mostly looking down at his knees with his hands hunched together. He reminds you of Stephen King with more kempt hair. He lingers thoughtfully on what he is trying to say, as well as what you’ve asked him. He talks about short stories and how it’s a most difficult art form. “Reading a short story is like confronting death. You know it’s going to end soon and my eyes start to moisten.” His standout moment of last year was when Alice Munro won the Nobel Prize for literature and he wonders why her stories are not made into films. He says books are far tougher to make into films; he can count the number of great book-based films on the fingers of one hand. The conversation then veers towards social media. Suddenly, Franzen’s solid frame crumbles. He gets very animated. “I can’t understand editors who are telling reporters to tweet, tweet, tweet, get likes, likes, likes, send your pictures, upload your videos,” he imitates these editors in a high-strung squeaky voice, shaking all over. Soon, he calms down. “The notion that Twitter is some egalitarian force is flawed. Yes, it’s very popular, but even there a few people have a lot of followers, just like the real world.” Franzen is a birder and what he is really looking forward to is to go to Bharatpur, Sariska and later Kaziranga in Assam to watch birds after his sessions are over. I tell him about a bit of news I recently read about how three Amur Falcons with satellite tags had flown over the Arabian Sea non-stop for three-and-a-half days on their way from Nagaland to South Africa. Franzen finally makes eye contact.