Symposium 4: Against Storytelling

Against Storytelling: Mission Statement

Paul Klee, Tightrope Walker, 1923. (Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons)

Against Storytelling: Mission Statement

About a decade ago, I interrupted a talk I was giving to a small group of international writers and academics gathered in Delhi to say, ‘Fuck storytelling.’

My respondent, a British Asian literary journalist, later said, while commenting on my talk, how ‘shocked’ she’d been by my remark. It wasn’t the expletive she objected to, but my attack on ‘storytelling’, which had been so ‘empowering to peoples and cultures’. ‘Storytelling’ had, by now, become a sacred cow that you insulted at your own risk.

My reasons for making that remark were at least twofold. The first had to do with the fact that – given we live in an ethos in which the event is of primary significance, and whatever is significant has to be construed as an event of some sort – it follows that part of the reason stories are important is because they contain a happening, or happenings, in a character’s or a place’s life. It also follows that the eventless can’t be the proper subject of a story.

My second reason has to do with my discomfiture with the idea that ‘storytelling’ is a feature of non-Western culture, and a valuable resource, as a result, of a postcolonial politics that sets itself up against the Enlightenment. A glance at non-Western artistic expression reveals, however, a deep commitment to forms outside of what we now think of as ‘narrative’ (synecdoche, for instance, and other means of poetic elision).

In an essay I wrote more than a decade ago, ‘Notes on the Novel after Globalisation’, I’d remarked that globalisation, by the turn of the millennium, had become a kind of narrative – a lateral, interconnected network from which there was no escape, and from which no one evidently desired to escape – and this privileging of a narrative that had no ‘outside’ (globalisation) led to the marginalisation of the poetic, to the genre of the novel becoming synonymous with the ‘mainstream’, and to a particular celebration of narrative. Let me quote a section from the essay:

‘Another co-ordinate that should be mentioned in this mapping of narrativity as a crucial critical and political conceit is the idea of “storytelling”. It’s a notion that didn’t really exist in any persuasive way on the intellectual landscape thirty years ago. Its rise is related to the fashioning of the discourse of postcoloniality; “storytelling”, with its kitschy magic and its associations of postcolonial empowerment, is seen to emanate from the immemorial funds of orality in the non-Western world, and might be interpreted as a critique of the inscribed word, and its embeddedness in Western forms of knowledge. “Storytelling”, then, is also an alternative to disciplines like history in the Western humanities; if it is now an ingredient in history-writing, it is so precisely to mark a break with the Eurocentric, the literate, the elite. No wonder that the notion is invoked almost always with an air of glamour and celebration. Both the concordances and the distinctions between this invocation and Walter Benjamin’s recovery of the figure of ‘the storyteller’ are instructive; for Benjamin was by no means an unequivocal advocate of narrativity. Thus, in the first paragraph of “The Task of the Translator”: “No poem is intended for the reader, no picture for the beholder, no symphony for the listener.” Benjamin is expressing the profound modernist desire for disjunction, a breach in the lateral weave of the fabric; it’s an image strikingly different from the one of simultaneous readership that comprises Anderson’s nationhood. Today, in the early twenty-first century, we’ve entered yet another cultural and political phase, after the shifts and reappraisals represented, in their time, by modernity and post-modernity. This shift asks us to look at narrative once again; and it asks the novelist to be careful about the point at which “storytelling” begins to collude with the narrativity of globalisation.’

The symposium in February 2018 aims to discuss questions raised by the sacredness we attribute to this apparently timeless act of recounting and telling.

Amit Chaudhuri, June 2017

Symposium 4: Against Storytelling

Storytelling and Forgetfulness

Still from Through the Olive Trees (1994), Abbas Kiarostami

Storytelling and Forgetfulness

Amit Chaudhuri

Years ago, I began to run into the claim that we are all storytellers. Storytelling was evidently a primal communal function for humanity. I was assured that we’ve been telling each other stories since the beginning of time. I felt a churlish resistance to these proclamations, possibly because one might decide that being human doesn’t mean one should subscribe, without discomfiture, to everything the human race is collectively doing at any given point. Storytelling shouldn’t be guaranteed an aura simply because humans have been at it from the beginning of history. Of course, part of my unease emanated from the fact that the ‘beginning of history’ is even more of a wishful invention than the ‘end of history’ is. It occurs to me that we probably began to hear ‘We are all storytellers’, as an utterance, from the late 1980s and early 90s onwards. From the moment one first heard this utterance, one was told it had been made from the beginning of time. As with various things that happened in the age of globalisation, radical shifts in our understanding (of value, for instance) quickly acquired an immemorial air. So, for example, it became increasingly difficult to conceive of a period in history that valued things differently from the way the free market does. Middle-class ideology may have concerned itself with appropriating the universal; the ‘now’ of the free market appears to have been more preoccupied with recruiting eternity. As a result, the popular-culture term ‘all time’ gained a new meaning with globalisation; like the assertion ‘We have always been storytellers’, ‘all-time’ lists and ‘all-time greats’ often go back over periods and are applied to categories (like rock guitarists) that are actually thirty years old.

The disciplinary shifts in the humanities privileging ‘storytelling’ are too numerous to go into here: I’ll only give one example. A historian recently told me that she asks her students to liberate themselves from the constraints of their pedagogy by thinking of the novel and behaving like ‘storytellers’. As I said to her, this interpretation of the novel of course inadvertently makes imaginative writing, especially fiction, synonymous with storytelling: it’s as if looking outside the bounds of scholarly work towards fiction or imaginative prose as a model for loosening constraints must privilege narrative, rather than other aspects of fiction, as being constitutive of the liberations of imaginative writing.

A surfeit of ‘We are all storytellers’ made me realise that this was not really a primary utterance at all. The primary utterance, if there must be one, is praise or acknowledgement of what makes stories and other things possible: existence; life. By ‘life’ I mean not what narrative is ‘about’, but what lies on narrative’s periphery. What the earliest texts seem to do is to attempt to find a language with which to both come to terms with and acknowledge – even celebrate – the contingency of the fact of existence. The story, with the human or anthropomorphised animal at the centre, emerges in the aftermath of existence, but, paradoxically, has an air of being recounted and a priori, of already having happened. Existence is neither a priori nor originary; it’s a moment of possibility.

In the spirit of investigating whether we were always storytellers, I went back to a canonical text. It’s from the first millennium BC: the Kena Upanishad. It felt important to go back to it because storytelling has been almost dutifully conflated with non-Western cultures, which themselves are often conflated with orality. Writing and inscription are, on the other hand, an Enlightenment project. Outside the West, in the lap of orality, our mothers and grandmothers have been telling us stories from when we were in the womb. Story, for us, has been an autochthonic method of nutrition. While not denying any of this, it was important to check out a primary text from an incorrigibly storytelling culture. ‘Kena’ in the Kena Upanishad means ‘why’, connected to the whys and wherefores of the universe. This poetic statement is from the brief opening section of this Upanishad (note that Brahman is not to be confused with Brahma, Brahmin, or other similar-sounding words):

Who sends the mind to wander afar, who first drives life to start on its journey, who impels us to utter these words, who is the spirit [‘spirit’, as the Sanskritist Heeraman Tiwari pointed out to me, is a Judeo-Christian translation of what he calls, in his translation, an all-pervasive ‘element’] behind the eye and the ear. . . What cannot be spoken with words, but that whereby words are spoken, know that alone to be Brahman.

What cannot be thought with the mind, but that whereby the mind can think, know that alone to be Brahman the spirit and not what people here adore. What cannot be seen with the eye, but that whereby the eye can see – know that alone to be Brahman. What cannot be heard with the ear, but that whereby the ear can hear; what cannot be withdrawn with breath, but that whereby breath is withdrawn, know that alone to be Brahman.1

This comes across not so much as a narrative of creation as an instance of self-reflexivity that is at once curiously tortured and liberating. Its meaning can’t be paraphrased, but it can be rephrased as a series of questions and replies. ‘What can’t be thought with the mind? Whatever it is that makes the mind think.’ ‘What can’t be seen with the eye? Whatever it is that makes the eye see.’ It’s an account that abjures progression on behalf of the self-reflexive, of the assertion that turns upon itself.

Here’s an excerpt from the third section:

The Brahman once won a victory for the Devas. Through that victory of the Brahman, the Devas became elated. They thought, ‘This victory is ours. This glory is ours.’ The Brahman perceived this and appeared before them. They did not know what mysterious form it was.

They said to Fire: ‘O Jataveda (All-knowing)! Find out what mysterious spirit this is.’ He said: ‘Yes.’

Brahman asked: ‘What power resides in thee?’ Agni replied: ‘I can burn up all whatsoever exists on earth.’

Brahman placed a straw before him and said: ‘Burn this.’ He (Agni) rushed towards it with all speed, but was not able to burn it. So he returned from there and said (to the Devas): ‘I was not able to find out what this great mystery is.’

Then they said to Vayu (the Air-god): ‘Vayu! Find out what mystery this is.’ He said: ‘Yes.’

He ran towards it and He (Brahman) said to him: ‘Who art thou?’ ‘I am Vayu, I am Matarisva (traveller of Heaven),’ he (Vayu) said.

Then the Brahman said: ‘What power is in thee?’ Vayu replied: ‘I can blow away all whatsoever exists on earth.’

Brahman placed a straw before him and said: ‘Blow this away.’ He (Vayu) rushed towards it with all speed, but was not able to blow it away. So he returned from there and said (to the Devas): ‘I was not able to find out what this great mystery is.’2

Although similar in shape and tone to Judaeo-Christian parables about miraculous strength, like the one about Samson bringing down the columns, this is really a parable about delicacy. After all, what’s at issue here is not moving mountains, but a straw. You don’t need strength to move a straw: what is it that you need, then? Delicacy is non-narrative; as with writing a poem, you can’t coerce its workings. Narrative and story by themselves are neither the same thing as, nor a guarantee of, movement; this is what writers, like the mystified Devas, need to learn quickly. Otherwise the straw stays inert.

* * *

I never liked reading novels. My growing up was spent consuming comic books and poems. I was eventually drawn to novels through exceptional paragraphs cited in essays; by my late teens, I was probably more likely to read a piece of criticism about a work rather than the work itself. One such paragraph occurs in A House for Mr Biswas by VS Naipaul, where Biswas in his early life takes a new job as a sign painter after having been a bus conductor. I encountered it in my early twenties in a critical piece about the book in an anthology on ‘commonwealth literature’. Biswas must reproduce the edict, ‘IDLERS KEEP OUT BY ORDER’.

…his hand became surer, his strokes bolder, his feeling for letters finer. He thought R and S the most beautiful of Roman letters; no letter could express so many moods as R, without losing its beauty; and what could compare with the swing and rhythm of S? With a brush, large letters were easier than small…3

I was transfixed by this paragraph, and felt it was a shame that I’d have to read the novel. I was content, instead, to reread the paragraph endlessly. This is because the paragraph presented me with a possibility. The possibility was the novel. The novel I was presented with was not the telling, the recounting, that I would purportedly have to read. That act of reading the narrative, the recounting, would, in a sense, diminish the possibility generated by this encounter with the paragraph. Where, then, are we likely to find this moment of possibility in a piece of writing; in, say (since we are talking about storytelling), a work of narrative fiction? To me it seems it resides in the sort of standalone paragraph such as the one I’ve quoted, which belongs to a story but is also independent of it, in that it seems equally located in an irreducible life and textuality outside that novel as it is in the life narrated and contained within it.

The moment of possibility resides especially in the opening paragraphs of a work of fiction, or any paragraph that has the irresolution, the air of open-endedness and lifelikeness, the lack of recountedness, that opening paragraphs have. The paragraphs in the first page of a novel (sometimes in the second and third pages too) have not been bound yet by the telling, but are opening out on to something. My ambition, always, was to write novels composed entirely of opening paragraphs and then to put them in some kind of order. The order would be a sequence that was partly illusory. Of course, we are experts at creating an illusion of continuity, both as readers and writers, and I believe that if you give somebody a text without any narrative they will impose continuity on it. My subterranean aim – so subterranean that it’s taken me two decades to see what I was up to – was to create an assemblage of opening paragraphs, to expand as much as possible, without introducing a sense of development, the vivid lack of resolution of the first three or four pages.

What kind of text is produced by an artist who doesn’t want the moment of possibility to be closed down by the compulsion or the need to tell? Once you commit to telling, the moment in the opening paragraph is over. We know for a fact that many writers have wonderful opening pages whose magic is sacrificed to higher causes, such as observances to do with the syntax of realism, and the responsibility of portraying the arc of the existence of certain human beings or ‘characters’: the novelist ‘must become the whole of boredom itself’, says W H Auden, who was in awe of, and slightly bewildered by, this voluntary taking on of the depiction of social milieu almost as a form of social responsibility. This loss of the abandon of the opening pages is characteristic of the human compromise, the deep maturity, that the novel represents, when the writer knowingly assents to being shackled by the need for narrative and telling. Naipaul himself is a fundamental example of a writer who sometimes begins with astonishing passages of lifelikeness, but then not so much loses the plot, or loses himself to a plot, but takes on upon himself fetters that are clearly unwanted. Joan Didion recognises this, and expands on the peculiar sensory excitement of the first three pages of Naipaul’s Guerrillas, which she confesses to compulsively rereading, almost as if the rest of the novel didn’t really matter. In the novella In A Free State, Naipaul translates, with extraordinary vitality in the opening section, an intuition of possibility into a story about a European man and woman who must journey urgently and impulsively out of an African country in the time of a coup. Then, like his two characters, he seems not to know what to do except see the journey through. As the syntax of narrative takes over, not only does the representation of the journey feel increasingly entrapping, but – as is often the case with Naipaul when he feels unhappy – by most standards morally and politically peculiar, turgid, and alienating.

Something similar happens in his travelogue, An Area of Darkness.4 Towards the beginning, a period of waiting is described: the ship, on its way to India, has stopped at the port in Alexandria. Nothing happens; horse-drawn cabs are awaiting fares. Few arrive, and melancholy settles in. This melancholy is a form of excitement, just as the waiting-for-something-to-happen is a kind of energy unmatched by the events later narrated in the book, the actual encounter with India, which is the book’s legitimate subject. For Naipaul, as possibility recedes (and possibility, for him, as the chapter on Alexandria shows, has little do with optimism), questionable moral judgement begins to dominate: this is his response to the cost of succumbing to narrative propriety – not so much ‘becoming the whole of boredom itself’, but an alienated chafing.

A House for Mr Biswas opens with a short prologue, where everything is indeterminate and proleptic. It begins, ‘Ten weeks before he died, Mr Mohun Biswas, a journalist of Sikkim Street, St James, Port of Spain, was sacked’, and then goes on to dwell, for five pages, on Biswas’s house, a house that’s ‘flawed’ and ‘irretrievably mortgaged’: ‘during these months of illness and despair he was struck again and again by the wonder of being in his own house, the audacity of it.’ We are suspended here, in the prologue, with Mr Biswas, between arrival and departure. Naipaul manages to stay throughout with this sense of the possible, and he does this by constantly returning to Biswas’s disbelieving conviction, even at the end of the novel, that the house on Sikkim Street is a house he’s just begun to live in: ‘In the extra space Mr Biswas planted a laburnum tree.’ In my edition, 583 of 590 pages have gone by when this sentence appears; and yet, despite all that has ensued and is now finished, we’re still absorbing the prologue’s ‘wonder’ and ‘audacity’ of arrival.

Arrival, like existence, and unlike story, lacks the air of the a priori and the narrated. In The Enigma of Arrival, the ship that paused at harbour in An Area of Darkness appears again, but this time in a de Chirico painting that gives both its title and its atmosphere of lapsed expectancy to the book. Midway through the novel, the narrator reflects that the painting is about a ship that sailed into a city, and a man who got off at the port and intended to go back, but forgot to: ‘The antique ship has gone. The traveller has lived out his life.’5 The inadvertent forgetting of the matter of going back, rather than the creation of a new existence, becomes this person’s story, as it does the narrator’s. Forgetting and possibility become, then, interchangeable; the life is never really recounted. It – the novel; the painting – doesn’t contain the tale of an immigrant; it represents an attempt at immersion in a beginning, what Naipaul calls ‘arrival’, involving an action endlessly postponed, which the narrator encapsulates with the words, ‘The traveller has lived out his life.’

* * *

How do we construct a page composed of opening paragraphs? One is reminded, of course, of Walter Benjamin’s ambition to write a book composed entirely of quotations. A quotation for him, as in his essays on Kafka, is also a paragraph; for my younger self, for reasons I mentioned earlier, and maybe for my present self too, a paragraph is a quotation. A novel is an assemblage of paragraphs or quotations, which both belong to the narrative and outside it. A quotation in an imaginative work – say, an essay – causes unsettlement. It’s there not as evidence, to legitimise a claim, as it might in a scholarly work, but to remind us that the narrator is distracted, that they’ve made an association and have been momentarily led from the text to another text outside it. The quote is not wholly present in the narrative; it’s partly elsewhere. So the quote doesn’t just further an argument; it leads to an opening up. The paragraph, as I understand it, must have the same sense of not being wholly present that the quotation, in Benjamin’s sense, does. When Benjamin speaks of his ambition to write a book composed entirely of quotations, he’s speaking of a method of building that brings together units that belong, but also don’t wholly belong, to the argument or narrative. A quoted paragraph for him is a standalone paragraph, because it comprises a possibility that makes recounting – that is, the rest of the narrative – redundant. If the paragraph is at least doubly located in fiction, then one location lies in fiction’s purported task, the recounting of a life; the other lies outside it, in acknowledging what’s more powerful than ‘story’ – the present’s contingency.

* * *

I’ve not forgotten that this piece has to do with ‘forgetfulness and storytelling’, for which reason I wish to look at the opening section of Kafka’s Metamorphosis in Michael Hofmann’s translation:

When Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from troubled dreams, he found himself changed into a monstrous cockroach in his bed. He lay on his tough, armoured back, and, raising his head a little, managed to see – sectioned off by little crescent-shaped ridges into segments – the expanse of his arched, brown belly, atop which the coverlet perched, forever on the point of slipping off entirely.

‘What’s the matter with me?’ he thought. It was no dream. There, quietly between the four familiar walls, was his room, a normal human room, if always a little on the small side. Over the table, on which an array of cloth samples was spread out – Samsa was a travelling salesman – hung the picture he had only recently clipped from a magazine, and set in an attractive gilt frame. It was a picture of a lady in a fur hat and stole, sitting bolt upright, holding in the direction of the onlooker a heavy muff into which she had thrust the whole of her forearm.

From there, Gregor’s gaze directed itself towards the window, and the drab weather outside – raindrops could be heard plinking against the tin window ledges – made him quite melancholy. ‘What if I went back to sleep for a while, and forgot about all this nonsense?’ he thought, but that proved quite impossible, because he was accustomed to sleeping on his right side, and in his present state he was unable to find that position…

‘Oh, my Lord!’ he thought. ‘If only I didn’t have to follow such an exhausting profession! On the road, day in, day out. The work is so much more strenuous than it would be in the head office, and then there’s the additional ordeal of travelling, worries about train connections, the irregular, bad meals, new people all the time, no continuity, no affection. Devil take it!’ He felt a light itch at the top of his belly…

He slid back to his previous position. ‘All this getting up early,’ he thought, ‘is bound to take its effect. There are some other travelling salesmen I could mention who live like harem women… If I didn’t have to exercise restraint for the sake of my parents, then I would have quit a long time ago; I would have gone up to the director and told him exactly what I thought of him. He would have fallen off his desk in surprise! That’s a peculiar way he has of sitting anyway, up on his desk, and talking down to his staff from on high, making them step up to him very close because he’s so hard of hearing.6

What’s striking is how both Gregor and the narrator have forgotten what the central predicament and theme are, or are incapable of grasping their centrality. Gregor is more concerned with the difficulty of turning on his side in his present state, a difficulty that impedes his plan to sleep a bit longer; he is made melancholy by the sound of rain; he will soon become aware of the unfairness of train schedules; in the meantime, he’s incensed by the memory of his boss’s posture. Another writer, a lesser writer, wouldn’t have permitted this losing sight, so early on, of the immensity of what’s happened. But the liberation of the opening pages of Metamorphosis comes from their inability to be absolutely present, their vacillation between being in the story of a man who has become a giant insect and their forgetting of this story and their leakage into something outside it: the matter of living, with its timetables and trains, which is supposed to feed its experiences into the story but also competes with and is unconscious of it.

There’s another kind of forgetfulness here: that of objects, or what in literary works we call ‘detail’. The picture of the woman ‘sitting bolt upright’; the gilt frame; the coverlet; the tin window ledges; the rain – these seem not to be fully conscious of being part, as background, of a story of a man who finds he’s a giant insect. Their role is not even ironical, as, according to Auden, the role of the animals and humans in Breughel’s painting of Icarus’s fall into the ocean is: ‘how everything turns away / Quite leisurely from the disaster’.7 In Metamorphosis, detail is not so much indifferent to the disaster as it to being in a story about a disaster; its location is both in the story and independent of it. So a narrative with an easily paraphrasable centrality of focus becomes, instead, an example of multiple and dispersed openings out. Its details have their counterpart not in Breughel’s Icarus, or in realist fiction, or in period or genre cinema, but in Abbas Kiarostami’s movies, where non-professionals are often not playing characters but themselves, and aren’t fully mindful that they’re in a larger story. They’re in the film and outside it. The same can be said of animals, air, water, and trees in a Tarkovsky film, or in a film like The New World by Terence Malick: that all these are non-professional actors unaware of playing the role of the characters ‘animal’, ‘air’, ‘water’, and ‘trees’ respectively, but are, inadvertently, themselves. They emanate, if you notice them, an innate forgetfulness of the story they’re in, as do the paragraphs I’ve mentioned. In this regard, the details I’m discussing are quite unlike those in period or sci fi films, where objects, horses, elephants, and things exude, like the protagonist, an awareness at every point of being either in history or in the future, two easily recognisable categories that embody further modulations on the recounted air of storytelling.

* * *

Jean Paul Sartre was intrigued by the idea of the adventure. An adventure, of course, is another name for story: for children, ‘adventure story’ is a tautology. Here’s Sartre’s narrator in Nausea:

For the most banal event to become an adventure you must, and this is enough, begin to recount it. This is what fools people. A man is always a teller of tales. He sees everything that happens to him through them and he tries to live his own life as if you were telling a story, but you have to choose, live or tell.8

In other words, we don’t, can’t, know we’re in an adventure or in a story. The same can be said of history: no one is really aware of living in a historical epoch. Conversations with people who have participated in historic situations, whether it’s a performance by John Coltrane or the partition of a country, confirm this unknowingness: all they recall is what it was like to be present at that time. But forgetfulness is absent from historical novels or films, as it is in films about the future; both the past and future are assembled by bringing together markers of history – turbans, togas, or forelocks – or the future: spaceships and space. Even space lacks forgetfulness in films like 2001: A Space Odyssey, whose story is already, a priori, being narrated as the ‘future’. Space, in Kubrick’s film, becomes a metaphor for the ‘homogenous empty time’ of history that Benjamin says makes the idea of man’s progress possible: the historicism that imbues our notions of the futuristic and historical is enacted succinctly in the film’s opening: an ape from a prehistoric epoch flings a bone into the air which, ascending in ‘homogenous empty time’, becomes a spaceship.

Yet both Kubrick in Barry Lyndon and certainly Tarkovsky in historical films like Andrey Rublov, or in his science fiction-based cinema, Stalker and Solaris, reject the notion of the ‘adventure’. The ‘background’ in these movies adheres, on one level, to what Sartre calls ‘the most banal event’; for instance, one of the first signals we receive in Solaris of dissonance doesn’t have to do with science fiction appurtenances, but a horse wandering outside a block of sixties’ houses; the second signal, which also comes early, occurs when a tunnel a man is driving through takes inordinately long to end: the tunnel, a very recognisable urban feature (this bit, set in Russia, was apparently shot in Japan, testimony to a certain kind of mid-century urbanisation available in various cultures), seems to loop in upon itself without in any other way being remarkable. The horses, spaceships, horsemen, and stretches of grass or space in Tarkovsky’s films, and in Barry Lyndon, possess not identifiable characteristics that mark them out as futuristic or historical, but a disorganised banality, a forgetfulness of the role they’re playing in the setting. As a result, both the past and the future are, in these movies, undifferentiated from the non-homogenous present in which we live.

* * *

What’s the relation between living and telling on the one hand, and between living and writing on the other? The prevalent model for life’s relationship to telling is that we live, gather material, and then pour or transform that material experience of living into something that comes out of it: the story we consequently tell.

In my understanding, however, the moment of writing converges with living randomly. There is no decision about transforming into a story material that’s been previously experienced or collected; instead, one arrives at a juncture at which there is an unexpected sense of possibility for the writer: I include all of us when I use that word. This sense of possibility comprises what I’m calling ‘writing’, which need not involve putting pen to paper or sitting down to write an inaugural sentence – as the act is portrayed in Hollywood films, where the ‘writer’ might be a fictional character or Hemingway or Fitzgerald, poised significantly at the typewriter to start a novel. The physical act of writing, or making that break from life when one sits down to commit oneself to embarking on a work is a reification, a reduction of the actual intimation of a beginning, a possibility that writing actually continually constitutes.

Let me give you an example of what I mean. You’re looking at the cover of a book and want to own it, to buy it. You study the cover, transfixed by it, and then you don’t read the book. You are transfixed not only because you want to read what’s contained within, but because you have begun in a sense to compose or write what’s within. The story that’s given to you by the book has become secondary to the story you’ve begun to write. This is the moment of writing. But you have not written anything; you’re arrested by what you see on the cover. You buy the book; in fact, you buy many such books, transfixed by them for one reason or another – it could be the jacket or title; it could be your reading, in the bookshop, of the first page – and then you put them on the shelf, as a covert gesture towards the perpetual imminence, the possibility, of writing. Your sense of ownership has to do with owning the story, but the story is not to be reduced by recounting, by telling: the story is always to be a possibility, which is why the books on our bookshelves that we don’t read outnumber the books that we do. Our bookshelves are largely made up of books that we do not read. These are our ongoing moments of writing – a self-generated accumulation of writing as possibility.

1 The Upanishads, trans. Juan Mascaró (London, Penguin, 1965), 51.

2 Ibid. 52-53.

3 V S Naipaul, A House for Mr Biswas (London, Penguin, 1969), 76.

4 An Area of Darkness (London, André Deutsch, 1964).

5 V S Naipaul, The Enigma of Arrival (London, Penguin, 1987), 92.

6 Franz Kafka, Metamorphosis and other stories, translated by Michael Hofmann (London, Penguin, 2007), 73.

7 W H Auden, ‘Museé des Beaux Arts’, Selected Poems (New York, Vintage, 2007), 87.

8 Jean-Paul Sartre, Nausea (London, Penguin, 2000).

Amit Chaudhuri is a novelist, essayist, poet, and musician. He conceptualised the ‘literary activism’ symposia, and is the editor of this website.


Ribeyro – a short story

Julio Ramón Ribeyro, 1974. Photo: Alicia Benavides. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

Ribeyro – a short story

Amit Chaudhuri

This is a response to Antonio Muñoz Molina’s The Hour Of Ribeyro

I had just sat down in a train going to London when I heard a muffled ding and knew an email had come in. It was from Pankaj Mishra: he had sent me a link to a ‘recent reconsideration of the Latin American novel’ which he ‘thought… would interest you… Especially, this paragraph…’ What followed was a quote – elliptical ruminations that caught my attention but whose provenance was unclear: ‘“The literary ostentation of many Latin American writers. Their complex of coming from peripheral, underdeveloped areas, and their fear of being taken for uneducated. The demonstrative will of their works… Prove that they can also encompass an entire culture and express it in an encyclopedic sheet that summarizes 20 centuries of history. Nouveau riche aspect of his works: heteroclite, monstrous, ornate mansions…”.’

When I opened the link, I found the essay was in Spanish. But I wasn’t sure if it was an essay or a story, partly because of the lines in the quote: ambitious but fragmentary; historically acute but also solipsistic and dreamlike. ‘I guess you’ve selected parts of sentences in the quote, then translated them?’ I wrote back. ‘Anyway, it makes for an intriguing assemblage. I read long ago that Marquez wanted to bring in bad taste too, among other things, to his fiction. But – and I may be wrong – these writers seemed to have often brought in something [altogether] more conventional [instead]. Sadly, I can’t read the article as it’s in Spanish. Much interesting critical work going on in the non-Anglophone world – including Bengali, even today.’ (The ‘altogether’ and ‘instead’ appear in square brackets because I have only just added them.)

Pankaj replied that he had, in fact, translated the short essay in its entirety. He was learning Spanish; it was his first attempt at translation. I found the full text he then sent me (on the body of an email) invigorating. A living writer, Antonio Muñoz Molina, had written about a dead one, Julio Ramón Ribeyro, and about Ribeyro’s daily journal in particular, to which belong the discontinuous sentences quoted above. It was as if I could hear myself in the essay; as if not only my voice but my and others’ history as writers – a history I’d almost lost interest in – was being returned to me. I had, through a bit of cosmic mistiming, been fated to write my short plotless novels in the age of the global novel, of the great ‘Indian’ novel, and in 1999 I’d spoken about ‘the tautological idea that since India is a huge baggy monster, the novels that accommodate it have to be baggy monsters as well… Indian life is plural, garrulous, rambling, lacking a fixed centre, and the Indian novel must be the same’. Now, through Molina’s essay, and through Ribeyro (Pankaj had only mentioned their last names, and they’d stayed with me), I encountered myself and the alien habitat called the ‘Indian novel’ in other milieus – milieus in which I vaguely knew such tensions had existed, but which were confirmed to me, through the translation, with a new urgency. Through Ribeyro, the great writer of short stories and (as Molina points out) the great notebook- or journal-keeper, I revisited the despair of writers who cannot execute great plans or narratives. Seepersad Naipaul’s despair at never being able to bring his stories to proper fruition; and his son VS’s sense of boredom, later in his own life, with the ‘well-made story’, leading to the writing of The Enigma of Arrival. My own initial sense of futility at not being able to carry out the big tasks, and my love of the short novel and brevity in every literary tradition – a love for which there was probably no term in English.

Did Ribeyro exist? I couldn’t be sure. I had never heard of him, but I’m ignorant of so many things. So wonderful was the position of marginality he occupied in Latin American literature that he could have been a critical concept or invention that Molina (who probably did exist) had come up with. Ribeyro, the man who had pursued fragmentary forms while his contemporaries created monumental works and became ‘global writers’, seemed too necessary and revelatory to be real. Only a fictional character or an idea could be so compelling, so felicitously right.

I recalled a conversation I’d had, by coincidence, with Pankaj when he visited me once in Cambridge in 1998. As we’d walked down alleys past colleges, I’d said that ‘if Rushdie hadn’t existed, the postcolonialists would have invented him’, which was greeted by a roar of laughter. (A month ago, a historian said the same thing to me. When I pointed out that I’d had the thought before, she asked me if I’d written and published it somewhere, and if she might have picked it up unconsciously – but I don’t think I have.) This is not a cavil against Rushdie, whose work I have taken pleasure in. My remark emerged from the fact that I found it possible to speak to students about Midnight’s Children – one of my responsibilities in Cambridge, where I was writing a book, was to teach a course on international literature – without having really read it. I wasn’t teaching them Midnight’s Children, of which I’d probably read to page 60 – but the novel would come up in the way landmarks do, and I found that it had reached, in postcolonialist vocabulary, a level of abstraction where one could hold forth fluently on it – as one might on an idea – without needing to really encounter its specificity. Later, when I resumed reading it, I discovered many details and characteristics in it that I thought original and enlivening. But postcolonialism, ‘India’, and the ‘global novel’ had made this materiality abstract, so that different paragraphs could be quoted from the book with the same commentary for each: ‘Notice the hybridity; the polyphony; the chutnification and admixture of Indian and English words… English, or “Hinglish”, is now an Indian language’. It is as if the actual paragraphs or sentences themselves didn’t exist in their particularity.

If the postcolonialists invented Rushdie – and not, you noticed after the triumphal rhetoric ebbed, an especially interesting one – because they needed a Rushdie, the anti-postcolonialists must have had their inventions too. One of these is Pierre Menard, about whom the one eponymous essay that exists begins: ‘The visible work left by this novelist is easily and briefly enumerated’. The tone of the sentence and the slightly dismissive emphasis on ‘visible’ suggests that to judge a writer by their work (which would imply that the greater its enormity and volume the more its significance) is too easy a task; and this comprises a useful starting-point for the anti-postcolonialist and anti-globalist, who are arguing for the indispensability of in- or semi-visibility. Menard’s major unfinished work comprises fragments of Don Quixote: ‘He did not want to compose another Quixote – which is easy – but the Quixote itself’. This dismissal, and redefinition, of the ‘easy’ is continued in the essayist’s account of the strategies Menard tried out when embarking on his project: ‘The first method he conceived was relatively simple. Know Spanish well, recover the Catholic faith, fight against the Moors or the Turk, forget the history of Europe between the years 1602 and 1918, be Miguel de Cervantes. Pierre Menard studied this procedure (I know he attained a fairly accurate command of seventeenth-century Spanish) but discarded it as too easy.’ In contrast to postcolonial readings of paragraphs in Midnight’s Children, where each one satisfies certain necessary prerequisites and ends up being the more or less the same as the other – that is, the paragraph becomes an abstraction – the essayist writing about Menard makes an anti-postcolonialist comparison of paragraphs from Cervantes and Menard to draw our attention to radical differences:

It is a revelation to compare Menard’s Don Quixote with Cervantes’s. The latter, for example, wrote (part one, chapter nine):

…truth, whose mother is history, rival of time, depository of deeds, witness of the past, exemplar and adviser to the present, and the future’s counsellor.

Written in the seventeenth century, written by the ‘lay genius’ Cervantes, this enumeration is a mere rhetorical praise of history. Menard, on the other writes:

…truth, whose mother is history, rival of time, depository of deeds, witness of the past, exemplar and adviser to the present, and the future’s counsellor.

History, the mother of truth: the idea is astounding. Menard, a contemporary of William James, does not define history as inquiry into reality but as its origin…

The contrast in style is also vivid. The archaic style of Menard – quite foreign, after all – suffers from a certain affectation. Not so that of his forerunner, who handles with ease the current Spanish of his time.


Ribeyro, in a sense, is – in Molina’s essay and Pankaj’s translation – the latest invention that anti-postcolonialists have thrown up in order to alter the terms of the discussion. For now, it doesn’t matter if he exists. Coming into contact with him has created an opening.

Note: the word ‘anti-postcolonialist’ has no existence outside this story.

Symposium 3: Reassessments

Reassessments: Mission Statement

Jamini Roy’s Mountain Peaks, Impressionist-style, from his early work. (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Cow, by Jamini Roy, in his characteristic patua style. (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Reassessments: Mission Statement

Amit Chaudhuri

[Note: The 3rd symposium in the ‘literary activism’ series took place in Calcutta in January 2017. The speakers were Jessa Crispin, Simon During, Simon Glendinning, Anjali Joseph, Saikat Majumdar, Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, Karthika Naïr, Marco Roth, and Amit Chaudhuri.]

Literary and intellectual history is neither an evolution nor a linear movement. It’s a narrative of stops and starts, mainly because it’s shaped by, and dependent on, reassessment. All kinds of reassessment punctuate literary and intellectual history, but, to me, one of the most interesting has to do with a refutation of the theoretical, and with the reclamation of minor figures. For examples of how such movements are generated, we could go back to Nietzsche drawing attention, in The Birth of Tragedy, to the way the moral-ethical-intellectual Socrates turned to music-making in prison in the days before his death. Or, more recently, we might think of Ranajit Guha’s short book, History at the Limits of World-History, and note not only the precedence this Subaltern Studies founding father gives to poetic language over history-writing late in his life, but also the bewildered response of those who followed and admired Guha’s work.

For me, then, ‘reassessment’ comprises an opening-up that’s disorienting and possibly utopian, and has a particular role to play today, in the years after the waning of critical theory. It belongs to a tradition of argument, dissent and possible anti-idealism, which asks us to understand the turn in terms that go beyond the nationalistic or the celebration of the little, the small, the vernacular. I’m thinking now of poets like Philip Larkin and Seamus Heaney, both of whom rejected the influence of W B Yeats for relatively minor poets like Thomas Hardy and Patrick Kavanagh; of Ezra Pound, who said to an important forbear at a certain point in his life, ‘I make a truce with you, Walt Whitman -/ I have detested you long enough’; or of the artist Jamini Roy, who turned from his academic training in European realism to the Kalighat patuas. ‘Reassessment’ asks us to read these gestures – and our own gestures and turnings away – as being more than conventionally political or aesthetic. What sort of creative and intellectual history are they making a case for?

Amit Chaudhuri, January 2017

Symposium 3: Reassessments

Possible, not Alternative, Histories

Two pictures of the sun god Surya in his chariot, Jwala Prakash Press, 1884. (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Possible, not Alternative, Histories

A Literary History Emerging from Sunlight
Amit Chaudhuri

I’m looking back at the title to remind myself of what it is. ‘Possible, not Alternative, Histories’. I want to do something here that’s reckless because it’s very ambitious. I want to tell you about my reading. And, in the process, I wish to describe or allude to glimpses or hiccups or revisions that are germane to a discussion on reassessment. And also talk about not only my history, but a possible literary history. By ‘possible’ I don’t mean a history that doesn’t exist, but possible ways of looking at history. I also wish to distance myself from the term ‘alternative history’: it feels exhausted. Certainly, if somebody of my ethnic and cultural background spoke about it, they’d inevitably do so with a particular inflection and emphasis. I’m distancing myself from the idea of ‘alternative histories’ in order to enquire into what histories it might be possible to speak about and describe, and in what way.

In order to do this, one must first create and explore a space that one might call, for convenience’s sake, a ‘fictional’ space. This ‘fictionality’ facilitates a critique, a certain way of speaking, which wouldn’t be possible in a sombre piece of academic writing. Let me try to give you an example. I’m obviously not referring, when I say ‘fictional’, to writing about characters or telling stories. I mean a particular tone which you can’t reduce to irony, a tone that’s serious but at the same time indeterminate, and most profound when parodying itself. Borges was a great practitioner of this register; it’s moot as to whether his most significant critical insights occur in his mock-essays or in his essays proper. What is the difference between the first and the second? The instances of type 1 and type 2 that come almost randomly to mind from his oeuvre are ‘Pierre Menard, the author of the Quixote’ and ‘The Argentine writer and Tradition’. In ‘Pierre Menard’, the narrator points out that the eponymous author ‘did not want to compose another Quixote – which is easy – but the Quixote itself. Needless to say, he never contemplated a mechanical transcription of the original; he did not propose to copy it. His admirable intention was to produce a few pages which would coincide – word for word and line for line – with those of Miguel de Cervantes.’

Famously, this mock-narrator goes on to quote from Cervantes’s Don Quixote and then from Pierre Menard’s, to analyse their differences, and showcase the latter’s originality:

It is a revelation to compare Menard’s Don Quixote with Cervantes’s. The latter, for example, wrote (part one, chapter nine):

…truth, whose mother is history, rival of time, depository of deeds, witness of the past, exemplar and adviser to the present, and the future’s counsellor.

Written in the seventeenth century, written by the ‘lay genius’’ Cervantes, this enumeration is a mere rhetorical praise of history. Menard, on the other writes:

…truth, whose mother is history, rival of time, depository of deeds, witness of the past, exemplar and adviser to the present, and the future’s counsellor.

History, the mother of truth: the idea is astounding. Menard, a contemporary of William James, does not define history as inquiry into reality but as its origin…

The contrast in style is also vivid. The archaic style of Menard – quite foreign, after all – suffers from a certain affectation. Not so that of his forerunner, who handles with ease the current Spanish of his time.

The question of what gives to writing its modern or archaic or national characteristics comes up again in ‘The Argentine Writer and Tradition’, which, in the collection Labyrinths, is classified as an ‘essay’ rather than, as ‘Menard’ is, a ‘fiction’. Borges, here, makes a series of proclamations that distinguish him from his Argentine contemporaries and what they take to be the attributes of Argentine tradition. Among the better-known of Borges’s statements are these: ‘What is our Argentine tradition? I believe we can answer this question easily… I believe our tradition is all of Western culture, and I also believe we have a right to this tradition, greater than that which the inhabitants of one or another Western nation might have.’ In other remarks to do with the accoutrements of culture, Borges observes: ‘Some days past I have found a curious confirmation of the fact that what is truly native can and often does dispense with local colour… Gibbon observes that in the Arabian book par excellence in the Koran, there are no camels; I believe if there were any doubt as to the authenticity of the Koran, this absence of camels would be sufficient to prove it is an Arabian work’.

In both the fiction, ‘Pierre Menard’, and in this essay, Borges is at his most incisive in complicating the business of cultural and historical markers: he’s countering whatever it is we take to be the visible characteristics of a 17th-century Spanish work (Cervantes’s Quixote), a modern cosmopolitan text (Menard’s recreation of Cervantes’s novel), an Arab book (the Koran), and Argentine tradition. For Borges, there are no clear or definite features that proclaim a work to be Spanish or Argentine or Arabic, although each is definitely what it is because it’s Spanish or Argentine or Arabic. The register in which Borges explores this crucial insight (crucial to him and to the modern reader burdened with an over-determined notion of culture) is the register of ‘fictionality’: there’s almost no difference, tonally, between the invented scholar who presents the reader with Menard and the ‘Borges’ who begins his essay with ‘I wish to formulate and justify here some sceptical proposals concerning the problem of the Argentine writer and tradition.’ Who are we to take more, or less, seriously – the narrator of the Menard ‘fiction’ or of the essay? It’s worth adding here that, like Borges, Roland Barthes, too, is a writer whose work constantly inhabits the peculiar domain of fictionality; his provocations are enabled by tone: ‘we know that to give writing its future, it is necessary to overthrow the myth: the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author.’ It’s as wrong to take this sentence from Barthes as a simple declaration, to divorce it from its narratorial voice, as it would be to do something similar with any of the remarks in ‘Pierre Menard’. It’s appropriate that Barthes, like Borges, must invent a particular authorial register in order to debunk the notion of the author’s continuing, reassuring presence. To understand Barthes, you need to not only follow the argument, but to be alive to tonality. The tone of fictionality is not ironical; that is, it isn’t saying, ‘The opposite of what I’m saying is actually true.’ It’s disruptive. It allows the critic to become fiction-writer, and say what it isn’t possible to in academic writing.


My use of the word ‘possible’ is meant to gesture toward ‘fictionality’. The foundation and starting point of my account of certain shifts in literature in the last three decades refer to a particular turn in the 80s that affected us all. This turn was taking place on various levels, and I will restrict myself to two – the emergence of global novel, which encompasses what we used to call ‘magic realism’, novels to do journeys, novels to do with maps and the way cultures come together. The global novel proposed – I will use a perhaps harshly simplistic binary here – that a bourgeois domestic setting was integral to the conventional Western realist novel, and the non-Western novelistic imagination implied the emigrant’s journeys, border crossings, hybridity, and cartography. In other words, it’s difficult for the novels of ‘other’ cultures, generically speaking, to be about a bourgeois apartment. There was also talk of polyphony. Since the global novel opens on to multiple cultures and the manner in which they encounter and mingle with each other, it necessarily must be home to, and echo with, a hubbub of many voices. It will be polyphonic.

This wasn’t entirely unrelated to the new and largely unprecedented interest in philosophy at the time in literature departments. Here, a particular version of Derrida came into being, with a special style of interpreting his words, drawing attention to, for instance, his first work, Writing and Difference, where Derrida introduces the concept of play thus: ‘the absence of the transcendental signified extends the play of the signifier to infinity’. This unbridled incarnation of play segues, in fiction, into polyphony, which segues into the global novel of the journey: the extension of ‘play’ is also a new, political idea of narrative, a moving out from the shackles of realism into the limitlessness of globalisation and its historical precursor, the discovery of the New World (the subject of ‘magic realism’). I’m not saying that the philosophical and narrative turns are identical; but they come to occupy a particular tone – not only celebratory, but also triumphalist. With ‘play’ comes the notion of laughter. At this time, laughter emanates from Bakhtin too, with a specific political significance, a significance that immediately adheres to the ludic.


These developments announced the death-knell of the apartment, and the view from the window. All of that had been rendered imaginatively peripheral by the turn in the eighties. Oddly, inappropriately, it was at this time (1986, to be precise) that I began to think about moving from poetry to writing my first novel, A Strange and Sublime Address, which, in some senses, was a book about a house, and which I conceived of in spatial terms.

I want to give you a brief prehistory of this moment. I grew up in Bombay over the sixties and seventies. It was around 1978 that I became a poet-manqué; a modernist- manqué. There must have been a sizeable group of us from the middle and upper-middle classes who, in that period of hormonal transformation, were angst-driven. Theories of misery excited us; there was a buzz around two words in particular. The first was ‘existentialism’, a term that everybody was familiar with in Bombay, especially leading ladies like Parveen Babi and Zeenat Aman, who’d refer to it in interviews in magazines dedicated to film gossip. The other word was ‘absurd’. Of course, we understood these words in the light of teenage self-interest. Life was absurd for us as teenagers. We found a great deal of our experience fell under the purview of the existential, of absurdity: we tended to adopt, at once, an interior and metaphysical way of looking at the world. The moment we engaged with and immersed ourselves in this perspective and its language, we ceased to notice – simply weren’t interested in – the physical. I was oblivious, for instance, to Beckett’s humour. I was mainly concerned with the word that had associated itself with his oeuvre – ‘absurdist’, which sounded close enough to ‘absurd’. There were aspects of his theatre which appeared to confirm that, in the second half of the twentieth century, the contemporary imagination’s conception of both the world, stripped to its essentials, and of the proscenium was basically a post-holocaust landscape, minimal, with few physical or living details. Then there were the terms that Sartre had put out there: ‘contingency’, for instance, which led back urgently to Camus’s ‘absurdity’. Existence was contingent rather than pre-ordained; its lack of meaning or purpose made it ‘absurd’. The teenager in me would have seen this statement less as a celebration of the role of chance in creation and creativity than as a confirmation of the acute pointlessness of life that suddenly becomes clear to a seventeen-year-old. (Both Camus and Sartre were Frenchmen and literary writers, with the Surrealists as part of their intellectual antecedents: so the idea of the contingency of existence carrying an echo of the joyously accidental provenances of creativity can’t be entirely dismissed. What in Camus and Sartre is tragic affirmation is preceded, in Breton and Aragon, by a sense of release regarding the same conditions of chance in relation to creativity.)

Much of the academic interpretative apparatus around modernism still carries that teenage passion: it sees fragmentariness of form, Beckett’s minimalism, and Kafka’s parables – to take three examples – as allegories of the twentieth-century human condition. That is, its readings are mimetic, its meanings metaphysical. It largely ignores the physical.


The scenario I’ve sketched above would vanish by the mid-eighties with the upsurge of the ludic. Theory, postmodernism, the global novel: these would render the absurd and the existential obsolete, just as it had made a particular spatial sub-tradition within modernism – the view from the window in the apartment – marginal.

In my life, too, a change was taking place: it coincided with my parents moving to St Cyril Road in Bandra after my father’s retirement. It led to me discovering, during my visits back home from London and then Oxford, the flowering in these lanes on the outskirts of Bombay. For me, too, it became necessary, by the time I was twenty three or twenty four, to leave the absurd behind. Thinking back, it wasn’t as if I was really aware, from the early to mid-eighties, of the changes to do with the postmodern novel, or with the poststructuralist conception of play. But I needed to abandon a world defined by a sense of the self and its penumbral shadow subsuming everything in its interiority. For me, this interiority was partly the legacy of a teenage misreading of modernism and Continental philosophy. I had to step out. This resulted in a remaking of myself, whose consequence was my first novel, A Strange and Sublime Address, a book unlike the poems I’d been composing from my late teens to the beginnings of my twenties, quasi-modernist testimonies to the tragedy of the contemporary world. The subjects of my novel were not only a house and a street in Calcutta, but joy.

In spite of this embrace of joy and play, my turn was unconnected to the cultural untramelling I delineated earlier, which characterised the new fiction and philosophy. For me it had to do with reading D H Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers. Lawrence’s novel gave me what I hadn’t found in my own misreadings of modernism. At that time – the early eighties – T.S. Eliot was still to fall into disrepute. He was viewed as the founding father of modernism in Anglophone poetry, but, as importantly, his work contained features that could be misread, and which lent themselves to, and, in my mind, converged with the melancholic history to do with the existential and absurd. His use of Dante in the epigraph to ‘The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock’ as well as in strategic insertions in The Wasteland provided an impetus for an allegoric reading of modernist poetry – formally, verbally, thematically – as if it were somehow a metaphysical representation of the human condition. The epigraphs and quotations, especially as they derive from theInferno, set a frame for reading. So did remarks such as these, where Eliot invokes a cultural mimesis that make us see modernism as a symptom, an allegory, of historical or personal extremity: ‘We can only say that it appears likely that poets in our civilization, as it exists at present, must be difficult. Our civilization comprehends great variety and complexity, and this variety and complexity, playing upon a refined sensibility, must produce various and complex results.’

When I was sixteen, and until I was twenty three, I believed modernism was, on one level, a formalist representation of the fragmenting of human, of Western, civilization, and the tragedy of that fragmenting (‘These fragments I have shored against my ruins’). This reading was inextricable from a metaphysical position on value: that it, like meaning or meaningfulness, must come from elsewhere (in this case, it emanated from a unitary Western civilization that was now lost). In Sons and Lovers, I found no attempt to summon an extraneous source of value; there was no civilisational sense of loss. I was astonished by it. Sons and Lovers carried within it a polemic which emerged from its anti-metaphysical position: its writing returned me radically to the significant fact of physicality, the fact of living in the ‘here and now’, and of living this life. Sons and Lovers is an early work, but its polemics are prescient of the provocative claims Lawrence made in a work he wrote not long before he died: Apocalypse, his eccentric gloss on the Revelations, which begins: ‘Whatever the unborn and the dead might know, they cannot know the beauty, the marvel of being alive in the flesh.’ Sons and Lovers is saying the same thing many years before he formulated those words in Apocalypse. The ‘unborn and the dead’ is, among other things, Lawrence’s euphemism for Western tradition and its inheritance; ‘being alive in the flesh’ a reference to a moment in literary history that’s ameliorated by a radical idea of value. This arc is important to me; it enacts an ongoing rejection on behalf of the physical which I first accessed through Lawrence and which I could not access in my misunderstanding of modernism or the existential. This refutation of interiority has to be distinguished from the postmodern and poststructuralist turn.


Now, where did Lawrence get this from? Possibly from the Nietzsche of The Gay Science. How important The Gay Science is to literature, as is the Nietzsche that says ‘yes’ to life, who exhorts us, ‘Embrace your fate’! Why is he saying this? Perhaps it might be connected to the fact that – like Lawrence, for whom the encounter with Italy and sunlight was a transformative experience – for Nietzsche too, the idea of Italy and the encounter with it comprise a revaluation. In The Gay Science, Nietzsche speaks repeatedly of Italy, and Genoa. He also refers to the luxury of a summer afternoon. In other words, Nietzsche’s sense of the release from interiority is happening through sunlight. Sunlight is not a metaphor for the enlightenment; it’s a way of speaking about ‘being alive in the flesh’ – physical existence – but it’s also a way of broaching the dissolution of the self upon its encounter with sunlight. When, in Apocalypse, Lawrence exhorts us that ‘whatever the dead or the unborn might know, they cannot know the marvel of being alive in the flesh’, he’s rejecting an extraneous meaning that comes from ‘elsewhere’, and derives its validity from a source, universe, or epoch outside our own. He’s rebutting the kind of superstructure on which not only is religion built, but the idea of meaning too. There are overlaps here with what Derrida made a case for in, say, De la Grammatalogie. But what’s happening with Nietzsche and Lawrence is quite specific and singular, because it involves a particular physical encounter with the sun. Lawrence reminds us in Apocalypse, when pointing out that ‘the mind has no existence by itself, it is only the glitter of the sun on the surface of the waters’, of what the encounter involves: dissolution.

The tradition or lineage of renewal I’m establishing here includes Goethe. Italian Journey, Goethe’s record of his wanderings in and around Rome, Naples, and the Italian countryside, is not only an account of architecture but of weather and of the sun, of the difference of the European South from the Nordic darkness from which value is supposed to derive. The memory of Italy never leaves him. He’s reported to have asked, before he died, for ‘more light, more light’. Apparently, his actual words were closer to: ‘Could you pull down the second shutter so that more light might come in?’ That’s a very specific instruction. Tagore, in the 1890s, when he’s in his thirties and journeying up and down the Padma on a houseboat, overlooking his father’s estates, writes to his niece Indira Devi, ‘Like Goethe, I want more light, more space’. Goethe is probably invoking Italy on his deathbed, attempting to return to that sunlit moment. Tagore’s memory adorns Goethe by adding space. ‘More light, more space’ – space takes us back to the self’s dissolution into emptiness. So light (which we can only perceive within space) and emptiness are connected both to each other and to the self’s dissolution, while simultaneously affirming physical existence. This is an unrecovered tradition in the West which counters Western metaphysics. Its origins are uncertain, but it goes back at least to Diogenes. Here is a philosopher who instructs Alexander (when he goes to him to honour him and asks, ‘What can I give you?’), ‘Could you stand back? You’re blocking the sunlight.’ This is a gesture toward all the traditions to which sunlight is not a pure metaphor for enlightenment but a reiteration of the immediacy of the physical now and the dissolution of the psychological world of value (‘What can I give you?’). Diogenes’s response is unhesitant because the rejection of the metaphysical, of meaning that comes from another source (and which other source of meaning might be more powerful than the Emperor?), is an urgent matter before the unmediated quality of sunlight.

In Tagore, the exclamation to do with ‘more space, more light’ must be viewed in the context of what’s often, where he’s concerned, a Nietzschean position on saying ‘yes’ to life. The first two lines of his song ‘jagate ananda jagnye amar nimantran,/ dhanya holo, dhanya holo manaba jiban’ (‘I’ve been invited to the world’s festival,/ Human life has been blessed’) appear to contain a startlingly egotistical observation: they actually comprise an assertion. There’s an odd implicit hiatus between the first and the second lines, so that they could function as independent statements about ‘embracing [one’s] fate’: ‘I’ve been invited…’; ‘Human life is blessed’. Tagore doesn’t even bother to use ‘so’ or ‘therefore’ – tai in Bengali – at the beginning of the second line to connect it, explanatorily, to the first (ah, so that’s why human life is blessed – because I’m here); he could have, easily. Both lines become standalone proclamations about the miraculous contingency of ‘being here’, ‘alive in the flesh… only for a time’. But to believe that one’s been invited to participate in existence, and to call existence a ‘festival of joy’ (Tagore composed the song in 1909), is an extraordinary as well as an extraordinarily obdurate thing to say for a man who’d suffered many untimely bereavements in his family. There was his wife Mrinalini’s death in 1902, his daughter Renuka’s in 1903, and his younger son Samindranath’s in 1907 of cholera at the age of 10. Tagore’s song is the most unexpectedly Nietzschean instance of poetry saying ‘yes’ to life. (So, in Thus Spoke of Zarathushtra: ‘Have you ever said Yes to a single joy? O my friends, then you have said Yes too to all woe. All things are entangled, ensnared, enamoured…’ In another song by Tagore that I know because it was my mother’s first recording, something like Nietzsche’s disorienting insight – ‘then you have said Yes too to all woe – is presented in a variation: ‘dukhero beshe esechho bole tomare nahi doribo he./ jekhane byathha tomare sethha nibido kore dharibo he’ – ‘I won’t fear you because you’ve come to me in the guise of sorrow./ Where there’s pain, there I’ll clutch you intimately’. )


A great number of Tagore’s songs, in one form or another, praise light. Light is not only synonymous with consciousness, but with the contingency – the chance occurrence – of being alive. To acknowledge light is also an act of affirmation. How does this love of light come to one who belongs to a climate in which it’s freely available? Shouldn’t one, in such a context, cease to notice it? Maybe we who live in countries such as the one Tagore and I belong to – where there’s more of the sun than where Nietzsche or Goethe or Lawrence lived – still develop, at a certain point in our lives, the same sense of being a migrant, a visitor, in the way Nietzsche did when he was in Italy. That is, we, who live in climates that are less dark, still can’t take the sun for granted. Maybe it’s just the interruption of night – I can’t vouch with certainty for the reason – but, at some point, like migrants, we become aware of the sun. Historically, as we notice in the early Sanskrit texts, the poets began to praise it in direct relation to the fact of existence.

I place myself in that tradition. Unlike the global novelists who left behind the melancholy of the absurd – often in the interests of the ‘play’ which was so wonderful in Derrida but took on a slightly sterile expression in postmodernity – for me there was something else: I was allying myself with another lineage by the mid-eighties (possibly because my student days in London hardly had any summer days in them), involving sunlight.


This brings me, finally, to two shifts in fiction and in reading – instances of critique – that defined the nineties. These were significant shifts, I think, but never clearly mapped or described.

The first had to do with nostalgia. I think that, in the time of the global novel, there grew in many a longing for a value that emanated not from the energy of globalisation and the free market, and the fiction it was generating, or from the polyphony of the postcolonial novel, but from a European idea of seriousness. Let me discuss, very briefly, three novelists whose reputations represent this longing; then move swiftly to three other writers connected to what I have been saying about sunlight. All of this happened from the nineties to the early twenty first century. The first three novelists – W G Sebald, J M Coetzee, and Roberto Bolaño – emerged in a particular way, the reputations occasionally related to posthumousness, untimely death, or silence: in concordance with our desire for something from the prehistory of the global novel. To be perfectly clear, I’m not talking about their achievements, but the manner in which they were often read and valued.

Sebald seems to be prized primarily as an impossibility: that antediluvian beast, the European modern. Susan Sontag sets the tone in the two questions with which she begins an essay – an act of championing crucial to the shift mentioned above – published in 2000 in the Times Literary Supplement: ‘Is literary greatness still possible? Given the implacable devolution of literary ambition, and the concurrent ascendancy of the tepid, the glib, and the senselessly cruel as normative fictional subjects, what would a noble literary enterprise look like now? One of the few answers available to English-language readers is the work of W. G. Sebald.’ The adjective she uses to describe the ill-fitting nature of his enterprise is ‘autumnal’. It’s no surprise, then, that, for Sontag, Sebald is powerful at this moment within the flurry of global Anglophone publishing because he’s ‘both alive and, if his imagination is the guide, posthumous’. His provenance is decidedly European in a classic twentieth-century sense: his ‘passionate bleakness’ has a ‘German genealogy’. This essay is a vivid testament to Sontag’s own millennial yearning. Her essays on other Europeans – Barthes, Benjamin – are extraordinary portraits of temperament: both of personality and of an age they might embody without intending to. Her piece on Sebald is as much about the impossibility of Sebald as it is about him. It articulates an anachronistic need – unaddressed by the triumphalism of the postmodern and the postcolonial – for the European’s sense of tragedy. Of course, Europe is actually irrelevant. Unlike Sontag’s other essays, she’s less concerned with Sebald’s ‘genealogy’ than – through the compulsions of her need – with his singularity.

J M Coetzee satisfied a different, and equally profound, requirement, and one that seemed to have no place in the ethos of the literature of globalisation: that of a person who, in the midst of extreme politics, should either be completely silent or speak only in figurative language. Coetzee is, for us, Coetzee precisely because he’s not Andre Brink or even Nadine Gordimer, because he refuses to speak in their language and terms, or in a directly interventionist way. Asked to address a crowd of more than a thousand at the Jaipur Literature Festival, Coetzee refused to either say anything or engage in conversation. Instead, he read out a story before the rapt audience. Coetzee satisfies the crowd’s deep longing – a residue of modernity – for silence and allegory in a literary universe that, since the eighties, gives a political meaning to polyphony, to the act of ‘giving voice’ to something. The value of the kind of gesture now synonymous with Coetzee is extraneous to his actual work. It’s seemingly out of sync with the time, and appeals to a seriousness within ourselves that’s out of sync with globalisation.

The third figure, Roberto Bolaño, reminds us – inappropriately, in the new millennium – of a tradition to do with failure, elusiveness, and a resistance to the sort of ‘boom’ that Marquez and other practitioners of the global novel came to represent. Bolaño’s world – often to do with obscure little magazines and the intensity of the literary in marginal locations – descends from Borges and Pessoa, weird Anglophile writers, whose tonality, as I said at the beginning, is unclassifiable, cannot be part of any boom, and actively militates against participating in a tradition of national characteristics. Pessoa, of course, remained largely invisible as a poet during his lifetime; and even his posthumous fame is based on the invisibility of Pessoa, since we can’t say who this seemingly ordinary person, divorced from the heteronyms through which he wrote poetry, might be. Bolaño became famous in Latin America just when he was dying in 2003 at the age of fifty. His fame in the Anglophone world – related to this anomalous need for invisibility in the midst of visibility, for failure where writing was newly, and exclusively, in union in success – came later. According to Larry Rohter in the New York Times ‘Bolaño joked about the “posthumous”, saying the word “sounds like the name of a Roman gladiator, one who is undefeated”‘.

In what way these writers’ works perform in the traditions they’re implicitly or openly associated with is another matter, and not my concern here. Nor am I going to dwell on whether they bring back to the contemporary world the legacies of Benjamin, Kafka, or Borges. Their reputations satisfy a counter-need in the ethos of the global novel; and those reputations exist in the same space in which the global novel does. They now exemplify a type of singularity, prickliness, and recalcitrance – very different from the loquaciousness of a Rushdie or the exuberance of Marquez – created within, and fashioned by, globalisation.


I end this ‘possible history’ with four people connected, for me, with a quiet reassessment that took place in the world, or at least in me, in the nineties. It was a time (we have forgotten this now) when we discovered that some artists – especially those we hadn’t thought of in that way – loved sunlight. The first comes from the very centre of that older tradition, and carries my sense – maybe misprision – of what the absurd is. The occasion was the posthumous publication of The First Man by Camus. The book appeared in France in 1994, and in Britain in the following year. It was out of place in at least three spheres: his own sphere of stoic despair; in the dominant tone set in the eighties by Grass, Marquez, Kundera, and Rushdie of textual, cultural, and political exuberance (and play); and in the alternative tone of a paradoxically postmodern modernism being established then by Sebald and Coetzee (Bolaño would come almost a decade later), of melancholy, reticence, and posthumousness. The posthumous nature of The First Man couldn’t be fetishized: it confirmed not the author’s tragic attitude to existence (as Sebald’s death did) but a startling refutation of the deep metaphysical unease that was synonymous for many with his work. The refutation had less to do with post-structuralism’s critique of ‘Western metaphysics’ than with the sun. It was extraordinary to find that Camus had a body, and that he was aware of it. The awareness arose in The First Man the moment – as with Diogenes – sunlight touched the skin. This is an acknowledgement of the sun quite different from – in fact, it’s a rebuttal of – the allegorical colonial ‘heat’ of The Stranger: ‘It was a blazing hot afternoon.’ In The First Man, sunlight makes the narrator conscious of Paris (the home of the human as intellectual) as a place of exile, of his homesickness for Algeria and his love of existence, just as Nietzsche was moved to embracing his fate after his experience of Italy:

Jack was half asleep, and he was filled with a kind of happy anxiety at the prospect of returning to Algiers and the small poor home in the old neighbourhood. So it was every time he left Paris for Africa, his heart swelling with the secret exultation, with the satisfaction of one who has made good his escape and his laughing at the thought the look on the guards’ faces. Just as, each time return to Paris, whether by road or by train, his heart could sink when he arrived, without quite knowing how, at those first houses of the outskirts, lacking any frontiers of trees or water and which, like an ill-fated cancer reached out its ganglions of poverty and ugliness to absorb this foreign body and take him to the centre of the city, where a splendid stage set would sometimes make him forget the forest of concrete and steel that imprisoned him day and night and invaded even his insomnia. But he had escaped, he could breathe, on the giant back of the sea he was breathing in waves, rocked by the great sun, at last he could sleep and he could come back to the childhood from which he had never recovered, to the secret of the light, of the warm poverty that had enabled him to survive and to overcome everything.

To read this passage in 1995 was to register, with shock, what it had made newly available. ‘His last novel luxuriates in the… sensuality of the sun,’ said Tony Judt in The New York Review of Books. ‘Nowhere else in Camus’s writing is one so aware of his pleasure in such things, and of his ambivalence toward the other, cerebral world in which he had chosen to dwell.’ Judt hints at, but doesn’t fully explore, what the ‘escape’ from Paris described above constitutes, and what it means both to the legacy of continental philosophy and to the ubiquity, at the time, of the global novel. I’m not dismissing the latter, and nor am I negating the importance of the Derridean critique I so admire. But here is something else, which I’d encountered when I’d read Sons and Lovers; a lineage opened up surreptitiously in the nineties with the discovery of The First Man. The second node in this lineage resurfacing at the millennium’s end is represented by Orwell’s essays. Their rediscovery qualified the allegorical Orwell: it took our gaze away from the metaphysical terrain that dominated our idea, from school onward, of the ‘Orwellian’, as exemplified by the slightly absurdist proscenium space of Animal Farm and especially 1984. With the essays, it’s not only a question of sunlight – it’s a question of love. I suppose this is the word I’ve kept out of my discussion, which Camus mentioned in the context of his numbness in Paris and his love for Algeria and for the sun. Orwell’s love of everyday aspects of English culture included even its food. At one time, to champion English food was to take up a shockingly provocative position that, in Orwell, becomes an embrace of the physical and the un-grandiose, of ‘all things… entangled, ensnared, enamoured’. English tea, English food, English second-hand bookshops, ‘dirty’ postcards on an English beach – the very joyous absurdity of Englishness becomes an argument against the absurdist, metaphysical, parable-like shape of 1984. As with Camus, the reappraisal of Orwell, who expended no more than five to six or seven hundred words on these subjects, was unexpected and sank in slowly. Its significance to the post-globalisation era is still not clearly delineated.

My third reassessment is a personal one, related once more to my search for a refutation of the metaphysical, but in a way that had little connection to the various critiques raised by Derrida, Said, and postmodernism. I realised – again, in the nineties – that Ingmar Bergman, whose cinema, when I was a teenager, seemed integral to the penumbral darkness we took so seriously in the seventies, was not so much a proponent of allegory as an artist of physical existence. I had seen Smiles of a Summer Night, but somehow not noticed it. When you’re responding to allegories of the human condition, you fail to see the physical. It was as if I’d watched Smiles of a Summer Night daydreaming about what the word ‘Bergman’ signified, and missed the carnality and mischief, Bergman’s promiscuous love of sunlight and joy. Once I began to notice these details in the film in the nineties, it was if the lineage of the sun, and of physical, sensory experience, had revealed itself – as in Camus – in the heart of the metaphysical and of the dark. I saw how much of a presence sunlight, and the joy it bestowed upon the moment, had been in Wild Strawberries; again, it had passed me by completely when I’d viewed it, in the late seventies, as the work of an agonised allegorist dealing in symbols. Even The Seventh Seal, about death, medieval mythology, and the winter, was, I now saw, essentially a comic work, its bleak but clear light illuminating the dance of death at the end as it would a dance of life.

My final example of reassessee is the author who was recruited, from the start, ever since his posthumousness defined the twentieth century, as the arch parable-writer and prophet of absurdity: Kafka. It’s only in the last fifteen years that I’ve paid more attention to the anecdote that relates how the friends who listened to him read from his stories doubled up in laughter at what they heard. About two decades ago, revisiting ‘Metamorphosis’, I marvelled at Kafka’s devotion to physical detail. I marvelled, too, that I’d ignored these details on earlier readings of Kafka’s writing as allegory. The appeal of the metaphysical had made his exactness redundant. Here is an account of Gregor’s sister trying to figure out what might appeal to her brother after his appalling transformation:

She brought him, evidently to get a sense of his likes and dislikes, a whole array of things, all spread out on an old newspaper. There were some half-rotten vegetables; bones left over from dinner with a little congealed white sauce; a handful of raisins and almonds; a cheese that a couple of days ago Gregor had declared to be unfit for human consumption; a piece of dry bread, a piece of bread and butter, and a piece of bread and butter sprinkled with salt.

The juxtaposition of bones, sauce, bread, and newspaper, the dry and understated poetry of the list, the hilarious but wrenching double-edged positioning of the cliché, ‘unfit for human consumption’, comprise, together, an example of how a sentence might embrace fate. Once I discovered it, I found Kafka untethering himself from the remnants of teenage interiority.

First delivered as a talk at the symposium on ‘Reassessments’ in 2017 and then collected in The Origins of Dislike (2018).