Attending a literary festival as large and varied as the one at Jaipur can sometimes feel like standing under an awning while a storm whirls around you. The rain splatters overhead, the wind howls (as winds must); you hear the storm, see it, smell it but are cocooned from its effects. You are at once part of it and not part of it, so that later when you hear reports of the storm you are slightly bewildered. Really? That happened? When? The talk around this festival has been of Pakistan and permissions denied, of last-minute pullouts by sponsors to the tune of Rs. 1.5 crore, of an angry exhange between Javed Akhtar and Kancha Ilaiah. I’ve been at a different festival, in which the questions have been about literature, about what books are good for, about the definitions of classic, about the shape of novels and how technology might or might not affect that shape, about writers and the state, about alienation, self-criticism, the horrifying (rather than magic) realism of Garcia Marquez, about the particular comic sensibility of the Jewish novel.
There are five sessions going on at any one time and so, for the tens of thousands teeming into Diggi Palace (even if slightly fewer tens of thousands than the tens of thousands last year), five different literature festivals. Perhaps the thing to do is flit from event to event, to stay just long enough to tweet. This is my first time at the festival, having just moved to Delhi in June, and the first two days have been a blur. There are so many people with so much to say and saying it; there is, of course, too much to process. Still, there are moments of illumination. I heard Christopher Ricks, the great scholar, quote Samuel Beckett, “Such helplessness to move she cannot help.” It is, as Professor Ricks said, a magnificent, moving sentence, full of suffering and irony and empathy. I thought of that sentence again at the end of Day Two, listening to a discussion about the ‘Jewish novel’ in which Howard Jacobson, a brilliant and brilliantly funny novelist, said that the comedy of Jewish novelists is in the face of suffering. The brave thing, the difficult thing to do is realise that life is abject, that what awaits us is the abyss, and to make that funny, to find a way to laugh.
As Jaipur unfurls — three more days and dozens more sessions; three more days of lingering forlornly with crowds of journalists outside the authors’ lounge, hoping for a word or two, some piercing shaft of wisdom — I’ve been thinking of another Jewish master of the comedy of despair: Woody Allen. Particularly his film, Stardust Memories. Particularly this moment:
That said, Jaipur can surprise. On the first evening I attended a session titled ‘The Novel of the Future’. The novelists on the panel were excellent: Jacobson, Zoe Heller, Nadeem Aslam, Linda Grant and Lawrence Norfolk. Given the quality of the panellists, I left feeling disappointed. But something Howard Jacobson said has lingered, about how novels save us from the single voice, about argument and conversation, forcing you for the duration of the novel into the mind of another. I’ve always thought reading to be a private act (or at lease a solo encounter with the world created by the writer), the opposite of conspicuous publicness of a literature festival, but there is perhaps something vital that a large, confusing festival represents: that there are many voices in the world and, even if they’re all speaking at the same time, we need to try and listen.