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Words have wings: The afterlife of literary works

As a nerdish 15-year old, I had once won a huge round of applause in a quiz contest when I replied correctly to a question about the connection between Vikram Seth and Alexander Pushkin. It’s old hat now that Seth’s The Golden Gate was inspired by Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin (a translation actually, since Seth did not read Russian). Both works are novels in verse written in 14-line stanzas. Pushkin’s work, set in the early 1800s, helped Seth find his voice and form for the 1980s’ Californian story he wished to tell. Such cross-pollination of ideas is not rare in literature.

The sonnet’s journey

Five centuries ago, the sonnet travelled from medieval Italian to English. Reportedly invented by Giacomo da Lentini, senior poet of the Sicilian school and a notary in the court of the Holy Roman emperor, Frederick II, the sonnet travelled from Sicily to Tuscany, where Dante and Petrarch perfected it.

Petrarch’s English translator, Thomas Wyatt (1503-42), who wanted to give English the literary refinement of other European languages, experimented with the form. His fellow-traveller in this endeavour was the brash Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey (1516/17-47), who fell foul of King Henry VIII and was executed. While Wyatt introduced the sonnet form to English, it was Surrey who gave it the rhyming scheme of three quatrains and a final couplet that is its recognisable characteristic.

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In later years, Shakespeare, Spenser and the Romantic poets made the form their own. The form has survived, with poets of all persuasions using it freely.

A more recent journey has been that of the haiku. Originally a short poem in Japanese consisting of 17 on (loosely corresponding to ‘syllables’) in three lines of 5,7 and 5, the haiku was first called hokku , its current name becoming popular at the turn of the 20th century. Among its foremost Japanese practitioners are Matsuo Basho (1644-94) and Kobayashi Issa (1763-1828).

The haiku captured the imagination of the English-speaking world when books on Japanese literature detailing its forms and authors began to appear in the late 1890s. The Imagists, particularly Ezra Pound and Amy Lowell, tried their hand at the form. In later years, R.H. Blyth (1898-1964), who popularised Japanese culture in the West, published many haiku in translation, which inspired writers of the Beat generation like Gary Snyder and Jack Kerouac.

Since then, the haiku has become an established form in English. Indian poet Rochelle Potkar’s collection, Paper Asylum , published in 2018, is a bunch of haibun, also a Japanese form that combines prose passages with haiku.

Not so novel

It is widely believed that Banabhatta’s Kadambari , a Sanskrit work of the 7th century, is India’s (perhaps even the world’s) first novel. But historians think of the novel as a Western creation that became popular with the introduction of printing technology, which made it possible for books to be mass produced, thus enabling middle-class readers to own (or borrow) their own copy.

Kadambari apart, it is only in the 19th century that the novel made its proper appearance in Indian languages: many early Indian novels were, by the authors’ admission, inspired by English ones.

Rajasekhara Charitramu by Kandukuri Veeresalingam Pantulu, often considered the first Telugu novel, was modelled after Oliver Goldsmith’s The Vicar of Wakefield . It was published in 1878.

Similarly, the early Malayalam novel, Indulekha (1889), by O. Chandu Menon, was modelled after Benjamin Disraeli’s Henrietta Temple . Menon had wanted to translate it but did not do so thinking that Malayalee readers may not be able to relate to it; his novel written in Malayalam was a smash hit.

A high note

To come back to poetry, another cross-cultural literary journey has begun in recent years.

The late Indian-American poet Agha Shahid Ali (1949-2001) had attempted to render ghazals in English, and not just through translation, though he had attempted that too. Ali’s final collection, Call Me Ishmael Tonight , published posthumously in 2003, is subtitled ‘A Book of Ghazals’.

In its original Urdu form, the ghazal consists of rhymed couplets with a phrase at the end of the second line that occurs subsequently in all the couplets that follow. The English form, at least in Ali’s renderings, loses none of the original form’s characteristic melancholy and longing. Adrienne Rich and W.S. Merwin have also published English ghazals.

To end on a high note, Harivansh Rai Bachchan’s Madhushala (1935), which uses alcohol as a metaphor for freedom, was inspired by Omar Khayyam’s Rubaiyat , which Bachchan had earlier translated into Hindi.

The Bengaluru-based writer works in publishing.

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