Writing the Novel

Our beloved ex-president Barack Obama once said of the role of the U.S. in the contemporary world–that we, Americans don’t have to stress about controlling the entire narrative in a world that requires cooperation of diverse nations to function well. America in the 21st century can only write a paragraph; moreover, if the paragraph is composed well, then it’s job is done.

British Indian novelist, Amit Chaudhuri makes a similar claim on the value of the paragraph in a novel. He writes that he prefers the singular paragraph, not only over the much-touted “strong beginning,” but also over the cogency of the narrative superstructure that serves as the cache of the novel’s mainstream actions.


Vladimir Nabokov’s “Lolita” Turns 60

LolitaWhat’s common to novels like Vladimir Nabokov’s “Lolita,” James Joyce’s “Ulysses,” and D.H. Lawrence’s “Lady Chatterley’s Lover”?

Besides the personal fact that they were all in my father’s bookcase, the one thread that runs through them is that these novels had been banned upon publication. Continue reading “Vladimir Nabokov’s “Lolita” Turns 60″

The Oasis Society

english patient

The oasis society is an invention of novelist Michael Ondaatje.

The characters of Ondaatje’s best known novel till date, “The English Patient,” exemplify this society.

The novel explores a global future: The most radical thing about the people in the novel is quite simply that they are not hybrid beings so much as postnational ones. The places where they were born or grew up is irrelevant to who they are as the color of their socks.

Nearly all of the characters are actively involved in trying to escape their names, their pasts, their seeming nationalities, seeking a new kind of order as in the desert where tribes meet and join and fall apart, and “we are all communal histories, communal bodies.”

Ondaatje is a poet and the novel is a vision of a new order he calls the “Oasis Society,” where the individual is sovereign, quite literally a world unto herself, as vast and hard to categorize as a solar system.

A Riff on the Master

the-last-wordI loved Hanif Kureishi’s work. There was “The Buddha of Suburbia,” “The Blck Album,” and “My Beautiful Laundrette.”

He is topical, hence his writing is fleshly.

The theme of his latest novel “The Last Word”:

The seesawing relationship at the center of this novel–between an aging, famous novelist and his ambitious young biographer–is in part a comic riff on Patrick French’s warts-and-all biography of V.S. Naipaul “The World Is What It Is.” Most of the novel takes place in the novelist’s country estate, in England, where he lives with his second wife, who is determined to protect her husband’s reputation. Kureishi paints in broad strokes–the biographer is a scheming cad, the novelist monstrously vain, and so on–and the plot tends towards the farcical. But there are moments of hectic joy, especially when the novelist’s seductive housekeeper is on the scene.

The New Yorker, May 25, 2015.

India By Ellipsis

odysseus abroad

Suggest India by ellipsis rather than by an overwrought all-inclusiveness: Such is, in a nutshell, the aesthetic preference of British-Indian writer Amit Chaudhuri, whose new novel, Odysseus Abroad has received an excellent review in the New Yorker and has been hailed as a more evocative representation of India than the Salman Rushdie oeuvre by the esteemed James Wood.

Wood likes Chaudhuri’s quiet style that stands out in contrast to the noisy one made famous by Salman Rushdie’s Booker Prize winning novel on the inception of political India, Midnight’s Children (1981).

Wood is an Europeanist and from his writing on Chaudhuri, it seems that style-wise Chaudhuri is an Europeanist as well.

I haven’t read anything by Amit Chaudhuri, but had at one time in my reading career, gorged on Salman Rushdie. Indeed as Wood suggests via media Chaudhuri, the International success of Midnight’s Children established a notion that all “fictional writing about Indian life should be noisy, magical, hybrid, multivocally ‘exotic’–as busy as India itself.”

Yet, the “multivocality” of Indian culture has been suggested in a quieter and smaller scale by a rich vernacular  tradition of Bengali writing well before Rushdie.

The idea of the implicit over the explicit in writing appeals to me. I wish more writers writing on India would follow in the footsteps of Chaudhuri instead of in the glamorous but enervating shadow of Salman Rushdie.

Here is a sample of Chaudhury’s quiet style, from A Strange and Sublime Address, a novella published in 1991:

A house in Calcutta must be swept and scrubbed at least twice a day. Once, in the morning, Saraswati polished the floor with a moist rag, and Mamima religiously dusted the tables and chairs. The dust rose in the air in breathless clouds and seemed to evaporate and disappear. But by evening it would condense, like moisture, and resettle on the surfaces of things. A little before sunset, a woman named Chhaya came to clean the house a second time, smiling at the boys as they waited impatiently for her to finish. She had a serious cultured face with a serious smile, the face of a kindly and understanding teacher; it was hard to believe she lived across the railway lines, in the clump of huts called the basti,from which whiffs of excrement rose on windy days.

The smallness of the domestic scene is an integral part of Indian reality, but writers like Rushdie haven’t really had the time to focus on this part of Indian reality. For the likes of Rushdie the “hybridity” of India is of essence. However, as Chaudhuri notes in a critical essay on the Indian novel, “Indian hybridity need not be flagged in bright colors, and in busy polylingual prose  with a scattering of untranslated Indian words and phrases and odd sentence construction.”

It’s no surprise that these two divergent schools of Indian writing in English has two radically opposed Indian aesthetics: While Salman Rushdie has included the raucous (yet ultimately shallow and conventional) hybridity of Bollywood, Chaudhuri (and V.S. Naipaul and the other Chaudhuri–Nirad) are influenced by Satyajit Ray, the classic Indian Europeanist and documentarian of India’s Proustian details.

Amit Chaudhuri is a fan of both Naipaul and Nirad Chaudhuri, whom he credits with writing elegant, formal English, indistinguishable from native formal English. The hybridity of this vision is unlike the hybridity of Salman Rushdie’s vision. It’s one of sensibility and context.

The Physics of Sorrow

Physics_of_Sorrow-FrontA provocative title has become a norm in the literary world today.

Bulgarian novelist Georgi Gospodinov’s novel lives up to the promise of the title according to a New Yorker review of it.

The novel is a meditation on contemporary Bulgaria. Currently deeply immersed in economic crisis after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Bulgaria hasn’t been able to make good of economic globalization and global market capitalism. Gospodinov, however, believes that the crisis of his nation isn’t just economic but also intellectual and aesthetic. Bulgarians are unable to imagine a future that fits the current of the present, he believes, so they lapse into an imaginary past, into that most dreaded form of evolutionary stasis called nostalgia.

Or, Bulgarians fall into nationalism, observes the novelist.

Both are pitfalls that Gospodinov avoids:

Both nostalgia and nationalism, in his account, are attempts to flee from or deny the sorrow of the present. Resisting them requires embracing that sorrow, and Georgi’s real quest in “The Physics of Sorrow” is to find a way to live with sadness, to allow it to be a source of empathy and salutary hesitation—the antidote to aggressive politics and “market exhortations”—and not a cause of “savage fear.”