SCIENCE - INTERVIEW - Sunetra Gupta - The Elements of Style:
The Novelist and Biologist discusses Metaphor and Science
It is easy to imagine novelist and scientist Sunetra Gupta behind a microscope. Professor of Theoretical Epidemiology at Oxford University, the biologist, fiction and non-fiction writer examines ideas, characters, and diseases such as influenza, with a careful, interior focus.
But Gupta, who researches infectious disease systems using mathematical models, is equally playful and at home with the ambiguity (and thus possibilities) of language, whether describing her disdain for traditional punctuation (over which we had a good laugh), exploring the consciousness of her characters, or comparing the languages of science and literature.
Many languages have shaped Gupta, who was born in Calcutta. Her family moved to Zambia when she was four, and she learned the native tongue Amharic (a language which she points out has the same roots as Hebrew) as well as English.
When she was a teenager, her family moved back to Calcutta, where her father worked as a professor of history. Partly through her father’s influence, Gupta developed a deep appreciation for literature and poetry, particularly the Bengali poet Tagore. But mathematics and science struck her just as forcefully.
“Literature and science stem from the burning desire to understand,” Gupta explains in a speech she delivered at the 12th International Conference of Thinking in 2005. “I devoured books on classical physics with the same emotional energy I consumed poetry and fiction,” she recalls.
Gupta earned her undergraduate degree at Princeton University and went on to receive her doctorate from the University of London. She is also the author of five novels including her most recent, So Good in Black (Clockroot Books, March 2011). Her first novel, Memories of Rain (1992) won the Sahitya Akademi Prize in 1997; followed by The Glassblower's Breath (1993); Moonlight into Marzipan (1995); and A Sin of Colour(1999), which won the Southern Arts Literature Prize, 2000. It was also shortlisted for the Crossword Award and was on the longlist for the Orange Prize in 2000.
WRR: You were born in Calcutta and moved to Ethiopia as a child. Where do you feel most at home?
Gupta: As far as where home is or where I come from, to me that is securely Bengal. My roots in the Bengali culture are very deep, my father having been very connected with it.
Since then, I’ve lived in places that are not home and continue to live and probably will spend the rest of life in a place that’s not where I come from. But that doesn’t pose any problems for me. Maybe this relates to my relationship with place. John Banville, in his novel Shroud, says of place:
As if place meant something; as if being somewhere vivid and exotic ensured an automatic intensification of living. No: give me an anonymous patch of ground, with asphalt, and an oily bonfire smouldering, and vague factories in the distance, some rank, exhausted non-place where I can feel safe, where I can feel at home, if I am to feel at home, anywhere.
WRR: In a recent talk you described falling in love with the language of mathematics for its “knife-edged clarity and the leanness of its form,” but conversely you also advocate ambiguity for literature. Can these two languages ever mesh?
Gupta: Well, this is something I’ve been thinking about for a while.
When I was invited to speak in Australia at the International Conference on Thinking, I had quite a few thoughts about how mathematics behaved as a language, and it seemed a good idea to try and use this opportunity to work out the differences between the language of mathematics and that of writing, as this is something I’m often called upon to settle within myself.
WRR: How so?
Gupta: Some people ask: "Do these two activities cause some sort of split in your personality?” And the answer to that has always been a resolute no for me. I don’t feel that it has to be one or the other. Chekhov called writing ‘his lover’ and medicine ‘his lawful wife’ – not so for me.
WRR: How do you experience “discovery” both as a writer and as a scientist?
Gupta: That’s precisely where they have huge resonances. In science, it would be murder to have your conclusion before you begin experimenting. It is a journey when you set out to test that hypothesis and you don’t actually know where it is going to lead you.
You set up a metaphor and start working from there. You are creating events, which are internally consistent and have their own beauty. Let’s not ever forget that science has its own aesthetic and that the equation between scientific research and writing in some ways collide. From these collisions are born certain moments in fiction, and certain conceptual leaps in science.
The difference is that in science I want each piece, each element, to mean some thing exactly. I want it to be totally unambiguous. When I use symbol x it is a failure of the system if I can’t pinpoint exactly what x means. Whereas when I use a word in fiction I almost want it to have all kinds of possible meanings.
WRR: In your science are there ever moments when you think an experiment is going in one direction and instead it goes in another?
Gupta: Yes, but that again arises at the level of narrative, rather than the elements, which you tightly control. Whereas in fiction you start to exploit the elements themselves. You can’t help it. (laughs) You want to pick words in science or symbols or procedures with great care, but a different kind of care.
WRR: Yet, precision of meaning is also important for writers.
Gupta: Yes that’s absolutely correct. Actually, it’s very funny but while visiting the States, I recently found this book…I don’t know if you’ve come across it, but The Elements of Style, by Strunk and White.
WRR: It’s an absolute must for those who attended US schools during a certain time.
Gupta: Well, I did not know that “White” was actually E.B. White. But I picked it up and I thought at first it might be useful as an example to point out how ridiculous it was in some ways to actually prescribe style.
And some of their advice is actually fairly silly. You know, avoid a succession of loose sentences. Avoid fancy words or do not affect a breezy manner. They advocate brevity and clarity and all of that… But in fact, in the last chapter, which is called, “An Approach to Style,” they acknowledge very firmly that what actually constitutes style is ineluctable.
WRR: That does seem true.
Gupta: They are very humble about it. So, I’ll go back to what you said about precision, and this is something that they use in the book. They say that vigorous writing is concise, that a sentence should contain no unnecessary words; a paragraph should have no unnecessary sentences, blah blah blah. Then they write, “But this requires not that every writer make all his sentences short or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline but that every word tell.”
So in fact, what they are actually endorsing is making sure that every word counts, which is true for both science and literature, of course.
They say, ‘Don’t use too many adjectives.’ But then they say ‘oh, however…’ Yes “up the airy mountain down the rushing glen” without the airy and the rushing would be meaningless… So, it’s a very interesting thing. You want to make sure that every word tells. But that is not necessarily achieved through brevity or precision in literature whereas in science, precision itself is perhaps enough to guarantee that every word tells.
WRR: Sure, you could write an instruction manual and that would be precise.
Gupta: Certainly. In science, precision is what you’re aiming for. In literature, precision is not enough. However, in both cases, you want every word to tell.
WRR: You mentioned in a speech, “My reaction to punctuation is truly visceral. I physically abhor the use of the full stop.” Can you expand on this?
Gupta: I certainly have never consciously adopted a particular style, you know, and it was never part of my project to reject conventional grammar. It’s just what comes out of me. And over time it’s changed. Memories of Rain was full of very long sentences. In my new novel So Good in Black, the sentences are long, but there is no huge stream of conscious.
I’ll write a sentence, then instead of putting a full stop here (as we naturally might, or as we’ve been instructed by our upbringing to do), I’ll put a comma and carry on and I know this arises from within, and that I can’t put a full stop there, and certainly not a semi-colon!
I think our reaction to punctuation is visceral. My own reaction, I think, does come from that physical intrusion of that blank dot. In one John Banville novel, there is a moment where somebody puts the full stop on the death certificate, and the finality of it, how it jabs into the death certificate, completely echoes my sentiment about that particular piece of punctuation in English. Because in Bengali a full stop is represented by a vertical line and that has a more organic relationship with the rest of the letters. In English, this bullet thing (she laughs) is intrusive to my own construction. It’s not something I abhor in reading. I mean I love Hemingway… I think it’s used effectively as though there is a bullet hole through the pages. It’s what is required.
WRR: In the same way that poets might use blank space to create a response in the reader?
Gupta: Another similar example I found recently was a discussion of dashes in Emily Dickinson and I can’t remember who said this, it was just a little book I picked up in an airport. Anyway, whoever wrote it talked about how the dashes in Dickenson’s poems give you the illusion of walking across a rope bridge.
Something dangerous is happening with those dashes. So the fact that they were kind of expunged from some of the versions actually takes away from the content itself. It’s not just that she was writing and they got in the way…they were part of her style.
Style I think is another issue that needs exploring, needs rethinking. Because style is increasingly seen as something that is not integral to writing, but rather some sort of decorative element and this is unfortunate because I think the interior of any work is dictated to an extent by style.
WRR: Alain de Botton talks about a similar kind of trend toward homogenization and away from “style” in the Architecture of Happiness.
Gupta: There is this wonderful quote that I found from Alice Munro. She says that she approaches a short story like a house. It doesn’t have to be that you go through all the rooms necessarily, you don’t have to start at the front door and exit the back door even. You basically wander through the space of the house in whatever way you want, and as long as you are transformed by this experience, it is worthwhile.
The interior of this house might be opulently furnished or it might be really stark. Also, it’s there for its own reasons, it has it's own purpose. She says “its not there to beguile you.” And that she feels that should be a quality of good fiction, which I also think is a quality of good science.
WRR: Who are your favorite writers?
Gupta: Well, John Banville certainly stands out to me and, in the past few years, has provided exactly what I hoped to provide readers, which is just an intense pleasure of reading. You know, you just feel this enormous gratitude towards someone for providing that kind of prose. Another recent discovery is W. G. Sebald. Among contemporary South Asian writers, Amit Chaudhuri and Aamer Hussein stand out to me, and of contemporary American writers, I find Richard Ford's prose quite exceptional. And then, of course, there are the old favorites like Beckett and Nabokov - and very definitely Henry James. Also poetry has always played a very important role in my life.
WRR: There is a poetic impulse in your writing. Do you write poetry as well?
Gupta: I don’t. Every now and then I do, but then it becomes absorbed into my prose. There is not enough of a space between poetry and prose and what I do. The novel swallows everything I do.
WRR: I wanted to follow up on something you said in an earlier interview. You were talking about how modern writing trends and the focus on “accessible” books in which the reader often, and here I’m quoting, “…does not have to work at all. And that is something very dangerous.” I thought that was an important comment: Should readers work harder?
Gupta: I’ll stand by that. In my personal experience unless you work towards something there is very little to be gained…a slightly Lutheran view of the world. I’m also heathenish in many ways, but work itself is pleasure for me in both the science and the writing. However, it is also something that requires effort and dedication. Perhaps, the tradition that I am really drawing from is what we call sadhana in Indian philosophy.
WRR: How would you describe sadhana?
Gupta: I’m not a practicing Hindu, but I have a deep regard for the concept of sadhana, which defines an extreme state of dedication and is seen as the only real route towards achievement. I feel it’s disrespectful to the reader not to expect that they would want to engage in the same way with a book, with commitment and dedication, as and when they’re able. Obviously, we’re not always able to give everything we’ve got, so we might just want to sit in front of the television with a glass of wine, whatever… and that’s fine too, but we also have to acknowledge that is not going to transport us in the same way.
If you are seeking to be transported, you should be prepared to put in the work. I just don’t see any reason why a text should be accessible in the sense of being easy. I like to think my writing is accessible, but not necessarily easy to read. I hope that this would serve as an advantage to those who have the time to engage in that kind of thing. Of course I’m not prescribing it as a sort of general rule in literature. When I write, it is what comes out of me.