Navtej Sarna

Second Thoughts - Twitterature: What Next?

The Great Gatsby, often voted the last century's best novel, reduced to 16 twitter posts, each well within the 140 character limit, counting spaces... No, I'm not actually making this up on the strength of too much Christmas rum cake and nor is it some New Year gag. It has actually happened and that too in a very respectable, pure orange and classy cream Penguin book called Twitterature. And not to the Gatsby alone but to many other greats too…Shakespeare, Homer, Kafka, Hemingway, Woolf, Pushkin... you name them.

So what does it sound like? Let's go back to Gatsby, holding my broken heart. In the fourth tweet, Nick, the elegant, understated, sensitive narrator has this to say: “Some dude is standing on the bay with his arms up looking at a symbolic light. The Midwest didn't have so many metaphors! What a CREEP!” And somewhere towards the book's poignant end, he continues: “Gatsby is so emo. Who cries about his girlfriend while eating breakfast…IN THE POOL?”

Or turn to Shakespeare's Macbeth, whose fabulous resounding soliloquies we committed to memory in school and listen to how he describes his own end: “Shit. ‘C-Section' is not ‘of woman born'? What kind of King dies on a goddamn technicality?” And here is Hamlet for you: “Gonna try to talk some sense into Mom because boyfriend completely killed Dad. I sense this is the moment of truth, the moment of candour and -”

Old King Lear is not to be left out of this mass murder of the great tragedies. He ruminates: “What, my ungrateful girls are kicking me out? I'll be cold and homeless. This sucketh. Very unexpected. Am I right?”

The Russian greats, who captured the tragic nuances of the Russian soul in their tomes, do not escape the onslaught of this great invention of social media. Gogol in his Overcoat, from which Dostoevsky believed all subsequent Russian literature was born, exclaims “OMG my coat is gone. Everything is ruined. </3” (For the innocent OMG means Oh My God and that mathematical looking icon is meant to signify annoyance, a broken heart, super irony in twitter lingo). And ends the famous tale with the tweet: “I suppose I have what I want now, it's time to rest. If anyone sees my coat, tweet it.” Anna Karenina ends, after her suicide, with the words: “This user's account has been deactivated.” The classic duel scene in Pushkin's Eugene Onegin can be summarised with: “Wanna hear something really funny? I try to sleep with his wife, he challenges me to a duel, I shoot him and he dies!” The central crime in Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment is tweeted thus: “Casually off'd that old maid while typing this. Some other bitch walked in …well, she's dead too. Bad timing, LOL. (That last, incidentally, means Laughing Out Loud, one of the ways of expressing emotion on social media.)

If this was all meant to be funny, it would be, well, funny. But the scary thing is that this is for real, an exercise in pure earnest. The authors anticipate that their effort would be criticised as a travesty of great works so they justify it in a laboured introduction. They believe that the classics of literature are inaccessible and outdated in their original form and set out to remedy this much in the manner, according to their own opinion, as a Martin Luther undertaking the Reformation and popularising the Scripture. By reducing these classics to tweets, they hope to bring not their “dull, dull words” but their “raw insight into humanity” to the reading public in an “instant-publishing, short-attention-span, all-digital-all-the-time, self-important age of info-deluge.” They seriously believe that they “have liberated poor Hamlet from the rigorous literary constraints of the sixteenth century and made him - without losing an ounce of wisdom, beauty, wit or angst - a happening youngster.”

It is this seriousness of intent that makes the entire thing so dangerous. My mind goes back to the 1960s and sees a young boy cycling purposefully to a small shop in a lane off Dehradun's Paltan bazaar. There a smiling old man in a loose kurta-pyjama who seemed to have been separated at birth from P.G. Wodehouse would sell him Classics Illustrated at 25 paise apiece. The boy would bind them and treasure them and hungrily devour them in curtained rooms during the long summer afternoons. Wuthering Heights, Julius Caesar, Jane Eyre...

Even if he went on to read some of them in their full, original, daunting form, it was their illustrated versions he would remember. Forever it would be the picture of Cleopatra holding up a chalice, of lean Cassius with the blond curls, of Cyrano de Bergerac jumping from a balcony, cape aflutter, rapier held aloft. By the same token, I fear that 40 years on some reader may only recall the classics through the twitter tweets. Forever he may remember Frankenstein as “This killing thing is getting way out of control. You know like a mistress you can't shut up?” Or Mrs. Dalloway as a chirpy book that begins: “Ah! A party tonight! Should be a fine time - fun, friends, nothing stressful, nothing awkward. Should be a blast!” Or Conrad's Heart of Darkness as containing: “Keep hearing about this ‘unorthodox' Kurtz guy. Sounds interesting. Probably never overtweets about trivialities. My kind of man.” Or, worst of all, John Milton as the poet who wrote in Paradise Lost: “OH MY GOD I'M IN HELL.”

BTW, am I glad that I was born when I was! (BTW means By The Way).



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Printable version | Oct 23, 2021 5:57:14 PM |

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