Hunter S. Thompson was quite the centre of attention at the authors' gathering.
Contrary to expectations, he was sober (or appeared to be), appropriately dressed (although a Hawaiian shirt and shorts does not fall into the dress code of 'smart casual' which was mentioned on the card) and he had no packs of drugs lying in front of him. He sat at the table with his hands folded which would move occasionally to raise or lower his dark shades from his eyes.
The authors' gathering was a brainchild of Thompson himself. The New Year, he had written in a note to all the authors, demands of us to gather and talk about why our books were read and what was thought of them. Following is the text of the note that each of the fourteen authors received.
'You all do realize that 2010 has come. See how fast this fucking time flies. This fucking New Year demands us to gather and talk about why our books were read and what was thought of them. Even though I don't care much about my fucked up work but there's no harm in discussing it all. So how about we all meet on the 31st of Dec 2009 and give 2010 a literary welcome?'
Shocked was the word that almost all the authors used to express their feelings about the invite. Yet, at the same time, they were also curious to know what was thought of their and others' work. So, they all gathered at the assigned place and found a very bored Hunter Thompson waiting for them.
The welcome address was short. Introductions were quickly made although in most cases they were totally unnecessary. Thompson seated himself next to F. Scott Fitzgerald.
'I wish Ernest (Hemingway) had also been part of the gathering’, Fitzgerald remarked to no one in particular. 'He couldn't come', Thompson spoke in a soft drawl, 'only the authors read in the last year by the owner of these books were sent invites. And even though', he put in emphatically, 'she does have Hemingway, she did not read any. What a bother!'
'Monsieur', it was 'Honore'de Balzac who thus addressed himself to Thompson, 'how shall we proceed?'
'Well, Monsieur Balzac', Thompson tried to imitate the little man, 'You all have, in front of you, your books that were read this year by the girl whose shelves you inhabit. We need to discuss what she thought of our work and fucking determine, sort of, which book was her favourite. You will all represent your work as you understand best what she thought about your book.'
There was a moment of silence as everyone digested the information. A long moment of silence.
'What the fuck are we waiting for? Let's get the ball rolling here shall we? Okay, I'll start'. Thompson got up and almost snatched his book, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, from the hands of Ibsen. The playwright just shook his head in disbelief, shock written all over his face.
'Here is my book', Thompson started off loudly, waving his book like a Chinese fan. 'Her husband recommended it to her. She did lots of research on the internet about it. Wait a second', and he looked at all the people in the room, 'You guys have no clue what the internet is, do you?'
'I do', a female voice answered him. It was the young author Kamila Shamsie. 'Of course you do know. You're the only one of us who's still alive! Anyways,' Thompson continued, 'She didn't like the book'.
There was a low murmur in the room. 'What makes you say that Thompson?' Fitzgerald and then looked around, 'can we please have some music? It's rather dull here. Jazz would do?' and he smiled at everyone and no one in particular.
'To your first question my dear sir,' Thompson spoke slowly, his whole demeanour soft and a little gentleman like, 'it was obvious from the start. She didn't find anything in it she could really relate to. Except,' and here he raised his voice by a few decibels, 'for the fact, that in the movie, Johnny Depp, a famous actor and a dear friend, has played my role. This is a book about me, sort of. To answer your second question,' and he turned towards Fitzgerald, 'with pleasure'.
Jazz music filled up the room and added a sort of background to the whole literary discussion. Thompson continued, ‘This book is full of a lot of wit, some crazy humour and lots of drugs. I think it was the drugs that pissed her and maybe the illustrations too’. He chuckled loudly, opened the book on a certain page and handed it to Ibsen. The latter almost jumped out of his chair and mumbled something angrily in Norwegian.
Thompson laughed and sat down next to Fitzgerald.
'Your manners Thompson,’ Fitzgerald said, ‘are not that of a gentleman. But then again, you don’t even seem to want them to be so’. He continued. ‘My book did manage to score well with the young lady. The Beautiful and Damned is a book everyone can relate to. Money,' and here he paused, 'is a commodity none of us can live without. Certainly not men and women belonging to the arts' and he gave a meaningful nod to Virginia Woolf.
'I agree Sir,' Woolf replied, ' A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction'.
'Really?’, Thompson asked, ' I hate to advocate drugs, alcohol, violence or insanity to anyone, but they’ve always worked for me'.
Virginia Woolf gave him a disgusted look as she lit up her cigarette. Fitzgerald continued.
'The novel, if I may read from the back cover of this paperback'. He picked up the book and stared at the cover for a little while before turning towards the back. 'You see,' he spoke in a low voice, 'This book was sort of loosely based on my life with Zelda. The book, and I quote, follows the wild, quarrelsome and pleasure-seeking careers of Anthony and Gloria Patch from success to degradation and despair, unquote'.
'Monsieur,' Emile' Zola spoke suddenly, 'was your life full of success and ahem, despair?'
'What kind of a fucking question is that?’ thundered Thompson. 'Just stick to your books, don't get personal buddy'.
'It's okay Thompson,' Fitzgerald replied, 'May I have one of your cigarettes Virginia?'
'I roll my own cigarettes', she replied as she rolled one quickly with her right hand. 'I don't mind', was Fitzgerald's reply.
'I do' she said. [At this point Naguib Mafouz walked over to Fitzgerald and offered him a cigarette.]
'The answer to your question, Monsieur Zola, is yes and no. There were some elements in the book which could be attributed to Zelda and me. You see Monsieur,' he continued, taking long puffs, 'Gloria was a much more trivial and vulgar person than my wife. Anyways, to come to the point, my book was liked'.
'Are we having a competition?' asked Kamila Shamsie. Thompson, standing behind her, made faces as if trying to imitate her.
'Mr. Thompson', Kamila turned around, 'Are we having a competition?'
'I heard you the first time. I heard you'. Thompson walked around the table and stopped at the head. 'No, this is not a competition. Competitions are too fucking boring. We are just trying to discuss here what was liked or', and he looked around with a grin, 'disliked about our books'.
'Well, if that is the case, Mr. Fitzgerald was not very clear about his book' she replied coolly, ignoring Thompson's dirty looks. [Note from the writer of blog: Fitzgerald was one of the authors Thompson idolized. So was Ernest Hemingway.]
'My book', she picked it up and passed it to Ibsen, who was sitting next to her. 'Is about the events of World War II and 9/11. I wrote the story of a Japanese woman who lost her loved ones due to the Atomic bomb in 1945 and then again in 2001, when terrorist bombed the World Trade Center in New York. Burnt Shadows, that is the title of my book'.
Shamsie paused and looked at the authors sitting around her. The book was in the hands of Roald Dahl.
'My book had some really strong characters. The Japanese girl Hiroko Tanaka whose entire life changes after the bomb and Sajjad Ashraf, the man from whom she learns the Urdu language and eventually, falls in love with', there was a pause from Shamsie again. The book was now with Virginia Woolf.
'What the owner of the book liked were my strong characters, my writing style, and how I was able to bring together so many historic events in the lifespan of one person or one character. Although, books on 9/11 or what happened to Asians, especially Pakistanis after this event are not really her favourite reads but she liked how I dealt with the subject. I must admit here that my work which she likes best is Broken Verses'.
The book came back to Shamsie. She traced the clouds made on the front cover with her fingers before looking up at the others.
'Extremists and fundamentalists are the worst enemies of Islam' spoke Naguib Mahfouz who was sitting a little apart from the other authors.
'Yes, my friends,' he walked towards the table and sat down on an empty chair next to Somerset Maugham. 'I have also addressed Muslim fundamentalism in my books. Not only that, I have also spoken and written against it. Unfortunately, in the Middle East and most other Muslim countries, we do not have much freedom of speech. Not like Europe or America'.
'I agree and disagree, Sir'. Maugham spoke, looking at Naguib very intently the whole time. 'You know, there are two good things in life, freedom of thought and freedom of action. In France you get freedom of action: you can do what you like and nobody bothers, but you must think like everybody else. In Germany you must do what everybody else does, but you may think as you choose. They're both very good things. I personally prefer freedom of thought. But in England you get neither: you're ground down by convention. You can't think as you like and you can't act as you like. That's because it's a democratic nation. I expect America's worse'.
'What the fuck are you saying?', thundered Thompson. 'You think I could write this book', and he picked up his orange paperback from the table and threw it in front of Maugham 'if there was no freedom of speech in America? Hell and Damnation! We need to shut this fucking music off!'
Maugham ignored Thompson's outburst. Everyone ignored his outburst as he fiddled with the music system.
'Maybe, maybe', nodded Naguib. 'At least Mr. Maugham, they don't pass fatwas or authoritative ruling on a point of Islamic law in your country. I believe everyone should have freedom of expression'. He went quiet for a moment. When he spoke it was to E. M. Forster that he addressed himself to. 'Mr. Forster, will you be so kind as to show my book, Sugar Street, around to all the other esteemed authors gathered here. This book is the third part of my work, Cairo Trilogy. The three novels in this trilogy are Palace Walk, Palace of Desire and Sugar street'.
'Isn't it strange that the young lady read the third part first?' Forster asked Naguib.
'Yes, it is a little strange. Let me tell you why it is so. Just like in the case of our dear host,' and he pointed towards Thompson who stood near the music system with a most unpleasant expression. 'It was her husband who suggested to her to read my books. In her eagerness to read a new author, she picked up my book from the bookstore without any knowledge of its prequels. This error on her part is of no consequence though as she did not like the book at all. She was impatient while reading it and it seemed to me, wanted the pace of the novel to be a little fast. This did come as a surprise to me as she has read authors like Dickens and Tolstoy also and I feel their pace was not fast also. Anyways, she does plan to read this book in the distant future again after she has gone through the first two novels'.
'Monsieur Mahfouz,' Emile' Zola spoke, 'it is not so strange that she read the third part of the book before the first two. She did a similar thing with my book, Nana'.
'It seems we're all gathered here to build a fucking case against her'. Thompson grumbled.
Zola quickly clarified. 'Far from it Monsieur Thompson. You see, Nana is a part of the twenty novel saga which I wrote between 1871 and 1893. It was under the title The Rougon - Macquarts: the Natural and Social History of a Family under the Second Empire. The book was a pleasant read and much enjoyed by the young lady although she did find some parts of the book a little dragging'.
Thompson stared at Zola in disbelief. 'He took 22 bloody years to write a lot of crap?!' he turned to Fitzgerald.
'I must say Thompson, you must be a little careful when talking about the work of a master writer. Here, have a smoke.' and Fitzgerald offered him a cigarette.
Zola was not too happy with Thompson's comment. 'If I may say so myself Monsieur Thompson', he spoke sternly. 'I was an influential French writer'. He looked at Balzac for support who nodded his head in the affirmative. 'I was an important contributor in the development of theatrical naturalism. But of course, you won't know what that is'.
'You are right', Thompson lit another cigarette. 'I have no fucking idea'.
There was a light laughter in the room. Zola was indignant.
'I do love the cover of your book Monsieur Zola', Thompson said looking at the cover over the author's shoulder.
'The cover Mr. Thompson', spoke Somerset Maugham, 'is a famous painting of the same name by the great master, Manet. It was finished in 1877 and was quite shocking for its time. Why don't you search for its details on your internet?’ There was a triumphant look about Maugham and Thompson decided not to retort.
'Mr. Maugham's knowledge about paintings is very vast.' said William Golding, 'He bequeath his collection of theatrical paintings to the Trustees of the National Theatre in 1948. I, Sir', he stood up and looked at Maugham with great respect, 'almost had the honour of viewing your collection in 1981. Unfortunately, the display of the collection was discontinued there due to concerns regarding the safety of the paintings'.
At this point, there was a general stir among all the people present as they realized that Henrik Ibsen was not in the room.
'Now where did he go?' Thompson asked in an irritated tone. 'What about his fucking plays? He had two books to discuss.'
'He left a note'. It was Jerome. K. Jerome who got up with the paper in his hand. 'I saw him leave but I assumed he was going to the restroom'.
'Fucking idiot', mumbled Thompson. 'Here, give me the note'. Jerome handed him the note.
The note was written in broken English and it took both William Golding and E. M. Forster to understand the text. Henrik Ibsen had grown tired of the discussion and decided to leave. His note read, 'My book of plays was always present in the lady's handbag and was her constant partner in all sorts of waiting rooms. She enjoyed the plays. I do not know which her favourite was but if I am allowed a wild guess I would place my bets on The Master Builder.' There was some small scribbles on the right hand corner of the note which seemed to express in Norwegian and English his disgust over Thompson’s behaviour.
'How convenient!' Thompson complained. 'Why did we have this fucking meeting? You all should have just sent me notes!’
'That wouldn't have been such a bad idea', said Virginia Woolf looking at Thompson as if he were a vermin.
'Let's discuss your book Ms. Woolf or would you also be so kind as to leave a note for us?' Thompson spoke vehemently.
'I'd much rather discuss my book myself Thompson,' Virginia Woolf spoke. 'There's nothing much to say about it. The girl who owns all of our books, which includes mine, searched high and low for my book Mrs. Dalloway. Her husband had recommended that the book be a part of their library. Anyways, not being able to come in possession with the said book, they tried to lay their hands on any of my works. Thus, they bought this book - A Room of One's Own'. She tapped the ash of her cigarette on the pale green hard cover.
'A Room of One's Own is a work of non-fiction. In it I've elaborated on the reasons why it is important for a woman writer to have some money and a room - her own room - in order to write good fiction. She liked the book and related with it because she is also struggling to become a writer'.
'In order to become a writer Mademoiselle,' said Balzac, 'one must write for as many hours as possible. I used to write 14- 16 hours a day'.
'I agree', said Maugham, ' You cannot write unless you write much.'
'Unbelievable!' cried Thompson looking at Balzac. 'There was nothing else to occupy you old chap?'
'Monsieur Thompson, you are such a tease! Even though I would write for such long hours I took out time for all the other pleasures of life'. He gave a sly smile to Thompson. 'My book, Old Goriot, was one she didn't enjoy much and I don't blame her for that. Old Goriot is a sad book. It has a very pessimistic outlook towards life and at the moment the young lady read this book, she was anything but that! You see,' and he looked at all the others in a very excited manner, 'she was getting married!’
'I wouldn't know old chap,' spoke Thompson in a bored tone, 'never tied the knot'.
'My book, The Narrow Corner, was also finished after she returned from her honeymoon. I believe my book suffered a similar fate as Monsieur Balzac's. I wouldn't call it a dark book but it isn't exactly merry also'. It was Somerset Maugham who addressed the gathering. He stood up from the table and looked at Thompson, 'I'd like some tea please or maybe, some coffee?'
Thompson looked ready to rip his hair out. 'What do you think I'm running here? Some sort of cafe'?' 'Now Thompson, dear fellow', Fitzgerald spoke quietly, 'It was you who invited us all. As host it is your responsibility to arrange for tea, coffee or any other drink someone would care to have'. Thompson gave a slight nod and went out to make arrangements for tea.
Maugham continued, 'Mrs. Craddock, The Moon and Sixpence and Of Human Bondage', he put out his books in front of all the others. 'She read four of my works. It was only a year ago that she started reading me and fell in love with my writing style. I have not included my books of short stories as she hasn't read all of them yet. Which book do I think is her favourite? I think it would be The Moon and Sixpence'.
'Considering that she read four of your books, you appear to be the likely contender for being her favourite author Maugham'. Fyodor Dostoyevsky spoke gruffly.
Thompson entered at this moment and almost dropped the tea cup when he saw Dostoyevsky. 'Damn it! What the fuck are you doing here? You had sent a note of regret. Wait, I think I have the fucking note on me right now as well'. He put the cup clumsily on the table and started fumbling through his pocket.
'I didn't want all of you, and with all due respect to all present here, 'and he bowed to where Virginia Woolf and Kamila Shamsie were seated 'to judge my book. God knows I've had enough judgments done on my work. From what I understood when I entered,' he sat down, 'Maugham's work appears to be the young lady's favourite'.
'Far from it dear sir, far from it', spoke Somerset Maugham warmly. 'What an honour to have you amongst us! It is not any of my work which the young lady, who owns all our books, considers the best she has read in this year (2009)'. He paused and looked around to ensure that he had everyone's attention (Even Thompson seemed to be listening even though he was trying to make a rock music CD work). 'It was his book', and he pointed towards Dostoyevsky, 'The Brothers Karamazov which was undoubtedly her most favourite read'.
'But Mr. Maugham, how can you make this claim. Let the author represent his work and talk about it' spoke D.H. Lawrence.
'If I may sir, ' Maugham turned towards Dostoyevsky who nodded his acquiesce. 'In my humble opinion, I think The Brothers Karamazov is one of the ten best novels ever written. Old Goriot is another one'. Here he turned towards Balzac who smiled uncertainly. 'This book is Dostoyevsky's best constructed work. He had a truly remarkable gift for creating suspense and dramatizing a situation. The interesting thing is that this book is but a fragment of the novel Dostoyevsky proposed to write. It is, nevertheless, one of the greatest novels ever written'.
Maugham walked over to the Russian author and shook his hands warmly.
'Does this mean the remaining books shall not be discussed?' asked Lawrence.
'You're worried we won't give you a chance, eh?' Thompson put his shades on, tried to act the bad cop and failed miserably.
Lawrence ignored Thompson completely. 'I have no intention to disagree with what Mr. Maugham just said. His work’ and he looked towards Dostoyevsky, ‘is undoubtedly a great piece of literature. My book, The Plumed Serpent was started with a lot of enthusiasm by the young lady. Unfortunately, it did not live up to her expectations. She found the pace rather slow.'
'Was it the content matter which she failed to understand?' asked Forster, who appeared deeply disturbed by Lawrence's brief speech.
'Not really. The book is set in the period of the Mexican Revolution. It is, mainly, about the revival of a pre-Christian religion by the principal characters. While writing this book, I was living on my ranch near Taos in New Mexico. Somehow the story of the cult of the plumed serpent or Quetzalcoatl did not make an impression on her'.
'Cult books are a little hard for her to digest it seems,' said Thompson.
Lawrence decided to say something to Thompson, hesitated and turned towards Forster instead, 'What about your book? It was Maurice she read?'.
E.M. Forster blushed slightly at the mention of his book. 'Yes', he replied, 'she read Maurice and liked it immensely even though the book does touch upon a sensitive subject'.
'Does it?' Thompson removed his shades and looked at Forster, 'what can be more sensitive than a lot of fucking drugs and I mean a lot'.
'Homosexuality', Forster said quickly.
Thompson gave a chuckle and then broke into a laugh. Forster turned red but continued.
'Maurice is a love story. It is a touching story of despair, defeat, realization and acceptance. Maurice, the protagonist, is a man torn between what he feels and what society implies he should feel. In the end, his true self triumphs and he finds true love. Love which is ready to break all social and class barriers'.
Forster went quiet, as if he had reawakened some demon of the past. Fitzgerald walked towards him and put his hand on his shoulder. 'When Maurice was written,' Fitzgerald addressed Thompson, 'homosexuality was a taboo, maybe even a crime. It was not widely accepted, like it is today'.
'Some of the greatest writers we've had were homosexuals', said Roald Dahl. 'In my book, My Uncle Oswald, an encounter of the protagonist and his assistant takes place with Marcel Proust. He was one of the few authors who treated homosexuality openly and at length. A part of the book gives a humorous and completely fictional account of his homosexual practices'.
'What was the aim behind this book?' Balzac asked Dahl. Balzac had to really crane his neck while addressing Dahl who stood at a height of 6'6".
'Monsieur my book was a very, for want of a better word, saucy. The protagonist, Uncle Oswald, gets hold of this miraculous beetle powder, 'and he paused, ' which is a sort of an aphrodisiac'.
'Really?' asked Thompson, 'let me see this book!’ He picked up the book from the table, had a look at the cover and whistled. 'I thought you only wrote about chocolate factories and some other funny stuff for kids. This is fucking cool!'
'I have written a number of books for adults also. The young lady read all my books for children initially. She still has them and plans to buy more. Only recently, she got hold of these two books, My Uncle Oswald and Kiss Kiss'.
'Kiss..what?' cried out Thompson giving Roald Dahl a funny look. 'You don't look the sort of person who would write porn'.
'I don't Thompson', Roald Dahl replied in a cool manner even though everyone around the table was shocked. 'Kiss Kiss is a collection of short stories. These stories are sort of bizarre, bordering on being a little crazy also. Through these, at times, unbelievably unreal stories I have tried to show the dark side of the human nature. A side which comes forward only in a certain situation'.
'Very true Dahl, very true,' said William Golding. 'We all have this dark side, hidden within the recesses of our personality. It lies there, at times dormant, waiting for the right moment to strike. In case of my book, Lord of the Flies, it was this dark side which made killers and savages out of a bunch of school children who were stranded on a desert island. Sometimes,' he looked at the others, 'we attribute certain things to adults only. If there is evil, it must be in a character which is old especially when we are writing a book on children and for children. Evil is in human nature and can surface anytime regardless of age’.
'Your writings Sir William,' interrupted Roald Dahl, 'seem to mostly deal with matters pertaining to barbarism and war. Your service in the war has made a great impact on your writing.'
'You may say so Dahl,' said William Golding quietly. 'War makes you realize what a fragile thing civilization is'.
Everyone seemed to go quiet after this comment.
'She liked the book,' William Golding broke the silence. 'She found it disturbing but it rang true to her. It made her see the dark side of the English people while his book,' and he pointed towards Jerome K. Jerome, a smile on his face, 'gave her a look into the more comical nature of the English'.
'A little laughter is a good thing and there are not many books which have a lot of humour and wit,' Jerome K. Jerome spoke humbly. 'My book, Three Men in a Boat, was initially intended to be a travelogue but it turned out to be, for want of a better word, a really funny book'.
'Would you believe it if I told you that your fucking book scored no.3 on the list of the "50 most funniest books" that Esquire printed in their March 2009 issue. My book was a measly no. 18'. Thompson grumbled.
'Is Esquire some sort of a literary publication?' asked Jerome.
'It is a men's magazine,' replied Fitzgerald. 'Started in 1932 and flourished during the Great Depression. It is a respected publication so I'm sure it is a great honour for you Jerome. After all these years, your book is still as popular as ever'.
Jerome. K. Jerome seemed most pleased and looked around quite gaily while Thompson sulked.
'Thompson,' Fitzgerald spoke again. 'Are we done? It is almost midnight'.
'I think we are'. He took out a crumpled piece of paper from his pocket and went over it quickly. 'Yea, it seems we are done with everyone', he looked around, 'anybody want to fucking say something more?'.
'I do,' said Somerset Maugham. 'I want to leave a message for the young lady. May I have some paper please Mr. Thompson?'
Thompson handed him the crumpled paper and a broken pencil. Here is what Somerset Maugham wrote for the young lady owner, as he called her, a minute before the clock struck midnight.
“If you can tell stories, create characters, devise incidents, and have sincerity and passion, it doesn’t matter a damn how you write”.
The clock struck midnight. I switched on the lights as I walked into the room.
‘What are all these books doing on the table? Adnan, did you have anything to do with this?’ I yelled.
As I cleared the books I found the crumpled note.
I’ve been following the advice since.