The important European novelist makes innovations in the form; the important Indian novelist writes about India. This is a generalization, and not one that I believe. But it represents an unexpressed attitude that governs some of the ways we think of literature today. The first half of the sentence can be changed in response to developments in the new millennium to include “American”; in fact, to allow “American” to replace “European.” The second half should accommodate, along with India, Africa and even Australia. We arguably go to an Australian novel because it asserts Australian characteristics, and Australian characteristics are analogous to what we already know from the newly discovered worlds and continents of the last two hundred years. If an Australian novel is formally innovative, the innovations will exemplify its New World or postcolonial or vivid non-metropolitan features. The innovations of a European novel, on the other hand, are not an assertion of Europe, but deal directly and exclusively with the form of the novel itself. The sequence of deduction moves here in the opposite direction—a major European novelist makes formal innovations; pure formal innovation is a characteristic of European culture (rather than a political expression of Europeanness). If we find formal innovations in a non-European novelist, modulations on form unrelated to, say, identity, difference, or colonial history, we might say, “This novelist has a European air.” We could say the same about the more formally ambitious of the recent American writers, whose innovations are unrelated to Americana: that they are, in some ways, Europeans from, say, Brooklyn. At the moment, though, because of the centrality in the Anglophone world of the USA and of New York, we don’t think of innovations in fiction emerging from these locations as being primarily connected to what it means to be a New Yorker, or an American—we think of them as formal innovations in themselves. The American writer has succeeded the European writer. The rest of us write of where we come from.
What does formal innovation mean at this moment? First, it probably has something to do with reclaiming modernism, and an attendant, slightly uncomfortable cluster of symptoms and signifiers: the slowing down of narrative; Proust’s madeleine; involuntary memory. Proust’s return in this century felt subversive at first, a shorthand for introducing a discussion of the subconscious in a fictional landscape that, over the 1980s to the early 2000s, had little overtly to do with the randomness of memory, and saw the global or postcolonial novel as a receptacle of the world’s exuberant multiculturalism. By now, however, Proust risks being industrialized; the madeleine today is probably as much a part of a literary history of memory and sensation as it is of a contemporary lived history of artisanal gentrification. On some levels, you feel, Proust has been loosed from modernism’s difficult history.
The other mark of innovation that preoccupies us now involves a questioning, and extension, of generic boundaries. It reshapes the novel in the light of the essay, and, in doing so, not only challenges those obvious antinomies, fiction and non-fiction, the creative and the critical, but asks us to rethink what the novel might be. This innovation is related to the first one. Both ask a set of related questions. Does the novel have to contain an event, or series of events? Is novel-writing a way of organizing and fictionalizing such events? What exactly does “fictionalizing” mean? Does the novel have to be a “made-up story” (Naipaul’s term for what had begun to bore him in fiction)? If it doesn’t, then what replaces the “made-up story” in fiction? It’s important to note that those who are making a break here with the conventional novel aren’t offering something “natural” in opposition to the novel’s artifice. If anything, the kind of novel I’m trying to describe is marked by a certain self-consciousness. One must make further distinctions here. I’m not referring to the ironical self-consciousness of postmodernism. I’m thinking, instead, of the self-consciousness of the essay—its simultaneous uncovering of its subject (which might be food, art, childhood, social class, or something else) and its awareness of itself, at every moment, as a piece of writing. The “self” in the essay’s self-consciousness might also include autobiography: that is, personal detail or reminiscence. But autobiography in the essay is only one element in its pervasive formal self-consciousness.
I feel connected to these relatively recent preoccupations and departures. Finally, I feel, the delineation of the kind of novel I embarked on in the late ’80s (my first novel was published in 1991) is becoming clearer to others; is actually finding a place in the discussion. When I started out, there was the legacy of the 19th-century novel to contend with, and (notwithstanding the idiosyncratic work of Borges) the presence of the Latin American “boom” novel. Both made the novel identical with compendiousness.
The moment I completed A Strange and Sublime Address in 1988, I became aware of its brevity. In fact, brevity was the shape it had assumed after revision; it was not what I’d aimed for. But, among other things, I was aiming for beauty—not just beauty of description, but beauty of form and its inner progression—and it seemed that brevity accentuated both form and beauty. I mean that the novel is not generally thought of in abstract, formal terms (form, after all, is a kind of abstraction, and has no extraneous meaning), but in relation to its content, to the life of the society, time, and human beings it represents. With the short novel, though, you are as aware of its finitude as of the life narrated within it. You can’t be completely immersed in the story, as you can in a long conventional novel whose end is nowhere in sight, because you’re partly conscious, from the sheer lack of pages and the negligible physical weight of what you hold in your hand, that this story is also a piece of writing, and the pages are finite. In other words, you’re aware of form, in the way that, as you start reading a poem, you’re already conscious that there are only a limited number of stanzas after the first one. This determines not only how you read the first stanza, but each line. One can never forget, in the more formal genres, that writing, like a musical composition, is a finite creation, and not to be confused with life and its sprawl and unendingness. Finitude is a feature of beauty and of form.
Having typed out my novel in 1988, I realized at once that, in the Anglophone world at least, I was, if not alone, a member of a very tiny minority. I had to deal with publishers—who had earlier been enthusiastic about seeing the finished work after reading a chapter in the London Review of Books—suddenly having second thoughts. The lack of a conventional story contributed to their nervousness, certainly; but size did too. The novel was around 35,000 words. In the period of waiting (two and a half years) between finishing the book and the month of its publication, I would walk into Blackwell’s bookshop in Oxford to spot the brief, attenuated volumes in the Fiction section and identify their authors. I discovered that only two writers—both women—had pursued this form as an ongoing project, and distanced themselves from the long novel: Muriel Spark and Jean Rhys. I check the shelves even today (but only occasionally, as bookshops have become abhorrent in a way I couldn’t have foreseen in the ’80s) to see if anything has changed, and because, after twenty-six years, it turns out that most of my fiction is still the size of my first book: as is my new novel, Friend of My Youth. Glancing at the shelves for short books is one approach to excavating a tradition. It’s largely absent from Anglophone writing, while in every other modern culture—German, French, Urdu, Bengali—this beautiful form appears “normal,” and practitioners whose existence one knew nothing of keep appearing on the horizon, like Clarice Lispector.
When a cousin’s Belgian wife read my first novel, her response wasn’t, as it might have been: “I know these people, literally.” After all, the characters in the novel were people she’d come to know in Calcutta on her visits from America, then Denmark, in the first decades of her marriage. Her relatives through marriage were my relatives on my mother’s side. They were in the small novel. Instead, she said to my cousin, “It reminds me of Proust.” This was in 1991. I don’t recall Proust being commonly mentioned then in reference to the contemporary novel.
She may have meant that Proust too wrote of people he knew with little conventional fictional adornment. In fact, for certain readers, like Roland Barthes, who believed that the character Baron de Charlus in À la recherche du temps perdu was not based on Robert de Montesquieu but that Montesquieu modeled himself on Charlus, Proust had reversed the sequence by which we understand life’s relation to art: that the novel is a fictionalized version of the life we know. That this may not be necessarily so became evident to me even before I’d encountered Barthes’ observation, with the publication of A Strange and Sublime Address, when I noticed that my maternal uncle, who had his counterpart in the narrative as “Chhotomama,” was studying my work meticulously to find out what he would do next.
But I think my cousin’s wife had in mind, when she made that remark, a slowing down of time as a consequence of the confluence of sensation and memory. I hadn’t read Proust except in fragments, mainly because of my reluctance to read long books. But the name came up again, when the Indian writer Khushwant Singh described my second novel, Afternoon Raag. Then again, in the citation for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize; then, in a review by Hilary Mantel in the New York Review of Books. And I remember being surprised and moved when the philosopher Charles Taylor introduced himself to me at the Wissenschafstkolleg in Berlin in 2005 and said: “Your writing gives me the kind of pleasure Proust does.” This was at a juncture when I was beginning to wonder if the sort of novels I wrote were at all publishable—a question I have to reconsider periodically.
I speak of this background not to aggrandize myself (though the charge may be inescapable), but to put on record the fact that the mention of Proust was unusual once, and to address, today, what it means to the literary history of a writer like myself. The name “Proust” began really to gain renewed currency in Anglo-American publishing circles around 2012–13, with the English translation of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle series of novels—though there was some undecidedness about whether the books were fiction or memoir. I heard that Knausgaard’s work demonstrated an exaggerated preoccupation with how language engages with the mundane. Unlike me, who’d resisted Proust, Knausgaard, in the first volume of My Struggle, makes a direct and eloquent claim on his antecedents: “I not only read Marcel Proust’s novel À la recherche du temps perdu but virtually imbibed it.” There was reportedly more than a hint of the scandalous in the novels, mainly to do with how Knausgaard had portrayed his family members, but I suspected this account of the work had less to do with Knausgaard’s emphases than an interpretation imposed on it by contemporary culture. I pricked up my ears. It seemed to me that Knausgaard might be a member of my species: that is, one who found deeply boring what others found fundamentally interesting (story) and deeply interesting what others found fundamentally boring (the everyday and its poetics).
It’s one thing when Proust is retrieved from the cupboard in relation to a relatively young Norwegian novelist, and another when he’s alluded to in conjunction with an Indian writer. In the first case, the comparison extends a lineage to do with the European novel’s formal characteristics. It’s a fresh turn, or a re-turn. In the second, it comprises an anomaly in the terms in which the Indian novel in English is usually discussed. In what sense could Proust and the sort of narrative we call “Proustian” constitute my inheritance? This question can only be investigated to a point. The markers of Knausgaard’s writing are part of the unfolding of the form. In my case, the fact that I’m working within the history of the form is necessarily secondary to the fact that I’m writing about India.
In the ’90s, there was an opening up in the form of the novel, not unrelated to the Proustian refusal to make a distinction between the imagined, the remembered, and the real. This involved a breaking down of the demarcation between the invented narrative of fiction and the ruminative tone and content of the essay. It made obsolete the speculation about how “autobiographical” a work might be. This new kind of novel didn’t tap into the author’s life for the purposes of fiction; it rephrased this relationship by making the novel essayistic—that is, by turning it into a form that was not primarily meant to tell stories, but express a writerly self-consciousness. Again, even in terms of this word, “self-consciousness,” it represented a departure from the postmodernism of the 1980s. There are many differences between the former and the latter, but maybe the chief among them is the relative lack of interest in narrative in this new form; its courtship, often, of a poetic arrest, in contrast to postmodernism’s ironic investment in the tricks of storytelling.
The awareness of such a development in the form—a development away from postmodernism, but not toward a renewed faith in realism (such as, say, Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy, published in 1993, seemed to exemplify), nor a wholesale recuperation of modernism—came into being around 1996, with the English publication of W. G. Sebald’s The Emigrants. It had been published in Germany in 1992. A very well-known English critic asked me to read this book: “I think you’ll like it.” Maybe he’d spotted a commonality of purpose. Sebald appeared to look back to Walter Benjamin, and perhaps further back, to Baudelaire the essayist, and bring to the domain of fiction in the newly globalized world an eclectic critical mind whose perceptions were determined by desultory physical exploration: by flânerie. Sebald’s brief but productive six-year-old career in the Anglophone world (he died in 2001) and its aftermath inaugurated, in the new millennium, a way of placing the novel on the cusp of the essay and of fiction. Much of the discussion of this positioning began to take place in this century in America, especially in Brooklyn and Manhattan. I never finished The Emigrants myself, or read any of the other work, though I wish to: there’s a time for everything. In New York, Sebald’s putative descendants (according to commentators) included Teju Cole, whose Open City was published in 2011, and David Shields, whose highly-publicized “manifesto,” Reality Hunger, came out a year earlier. More recent writers in this line might include Ben Lerner. Susan Sontag’s championing of Sebald pointed to the essential Europeanness of this practice and temperament. Sebald’s retrospective interest in the German writer Robert Walser (also brilliantly endorsed by Sontag, and reassessed absorbingly in 2013 in the New Yorker by Lerner) confirmed that the radical preoccupation with this particular formal and generic shift had originated in Europe and migrated to Brooklyn. A British variation in this line was provided by Geoff Dyer’s hilarious extended essay with novelistic first-person narrator features, Out of Sheer Rage (1997).
It took me a while to comprehend the trajectory and nature of this development, from 1996 to roughly 2013, when people began to become conscious of it as a category, and publishers employ complacent terms like “genre-bending.” It pleased me that my unease with both the 19th-century and the postmodern, postcolonial novel—my attempts, from 1991, to make a place for the kind of writing that I was doing—should be echoed and recognized, at long last, by this shift. Because it had felt like I was working in isolation. But it remained to be seen if the isolation had ceased. To be an Indian writer means, after all, that you’re writing about India. What you’re doing to and with the form won’t determine the terms of critique where you’re concerned; least of all from Indian commentators.
My own feeling is that the break was made well before Sebald appeared on the Anglophone’s horizon, with the publication of V. S. Naipaul’s novel The Enigma of Arrival in 1987. It was well-received, though it puzzled many. The puzzlement was related to the recognizability, or lack of it, of the genre. I think it was Bernard Bergonzi who wondered why Naipaul had called it a novel, and not an autobiography. This missed the fact that the book was not only about the narrator’s life in Wiltshire, but about wanting to write a novel about the life of a Trinidadian writer in Wiltshire. Writerly self-consciousness had, in a very different way from postmodernism, placed autobiography at one remove. Naipaul didn’t look into a mirror to get a sense of his own story, but at a painting by a European, Giorgio de Chirico, of a ship sailing into the harbor of a city. This painting became both mirror and the image, the crystallization, of a moment. From the painting Naipaul borrowed the title, The Enigma of Arrival, again putting the theme of the personal arrival into Wiltshire at a slight distance.
It’s taken time for us to see Naipaul’s book as a significant innovation in form. Instead, it’s taken to be a document that attests to the postcolonial’s life in the heart of the former imperial center. It’s difficult for the postcolonial, or Indian, artist’s contribution to be discussed in formalist terms, because everything they do—the life they describe, the language they use—becomes the testimony of postcolonial history. Teju Cole’s Open City has been saved from this; maybe enough time has passed for a certain kind of novel to be read not just as a Nigerian’s effort to negotiate a Western metropolis—in this case, New York. Or maybe New York’s position as a post-globalization Paris allows us to situate one history—that of the Nigerian immigrant—within another—that of flânerie and the essay.
The other artist, besides Naipaul, who opened things up in generic terms was the filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami. In 1987, Kiarostami made a feature film called Where is the Friend’s Home? set in the Iranian village of Koker. Nothing ostensibly happens in the film: the plot, such as it is, concerns a schoolboy attempting to return a notebook to a friend in a neighboring village. In 1990, there was an earthquake in Iran. In 1992, the year that The Emigrants was published in Germany, Kiarostami released a film called And Life Goes On, in which a director sets out in a car with his son to look for the child actors who’d worked in his previous film and been displaced by the earthquake. The film isn’t about the impact of the earthquake; it records how the process of filmmaking, impinged upon unexpectedly by an event, might constitute its own story. And Life Goes On explores what it is to make a film on an earthquake’s impact on filmmaking, on both the auteur’s vocation and that of the side-players, just as The Enigma of Arrival explores the desire to write The Enigma of Arrival. Wikipedia’s filmography for Kiarostami lists it as both “documentary” and “fiction” (this reminded me of a sentence from James Wood’s generous essay on my work in the New Yorker: “The effect is closer to documentary than to fiction; gentle artifice—selection, pacing, occasional dialogue—hides overt artifice”). The confusion is a productive one. Kiarostami’s self-awareness (the film was made at a time when our understanding of “self-awareness” was still mediated by postmodernism) embraces references to the exigencies of filmmaking as well as random significances, during the journey to Koker, reminiscent of neorealism. The difference is this: neorealism employed non-professional actors to play characters in the story, giving cinema a register at once ramshackle and lyrical. In Kiarostami’s films, actors and ordinary people often play themselves. We are in the realm of a productive confusion without abjuring neorealism’s evanescence and lyricism.
When A Strange and Sublime Address was published in 1991, critics noted that, strictly speaking, “nothing happens” in it. Whether a novel was the proper vehicle for conveying “nothing happening” was open to question. I personally thought that a great deal was happening in the book, things that people may or may not usually notice. When it won a prize in the UK, I was told confidentially by a judge that another judge, a literary journalist, had disagreed with the decision on the grounds that my book wasn’t a “proper novel.” This began to be said about my early fiction in different ways even by those who were generous to me and liked what I was doing. Afternoon Raag (1993), my second novel, was called a “prose poem” by Karl Miller in a British newspaper. In an interview with an Indian paper, the novelist and critic Paul Bailey said he admired the book, and added, “But it isn’t a proper novel, is it?”
In retrospect, these remarks seem prescient. They gesture toward a vocabulary that was still unavailable and would come into existence only after 1996 and Sebald. The gradual creation of such a vocabulary was, and is, something of a reassurance for me. But it’s a limited reassurance, as I remain an onlooker in relation to the history of the form. I’m an Indian, so of course I write about India. But then, again, I don’t write about India. I’m not interested in writing about India. This means I’m not entirely, or comfortably, a part of the history of the Indian novel in English either. Nor can I be part of a history that’s now been appropriated by literary journalism and publishing houses: of the form of the novel. It’s not that I’m resistant to appropriation. I’m unfit for appropriation. This may be a good place to be in.
It’s while writing this essay that I remembered that Naipaul’s book, like my new novel, had a borrowed title. I knew this, but it had never sunk in. Naipaul was clearly obsessed with de Chirico’s painting; it meant something to him. But the shape and sound of the title must have meant something too. In relation to my novel, “Friend of My Youth” is actually the title of an Alice Munro story I’ve never read. Titles point to two things. The first is the book that it faintly conjures up. The second is the reader, to whom the title suggests what the book might possibly be. In imagining this possibility, the reader partly becomes a writer: he or she has started to create the book for themselves. In Naipaul’s book and mine, I realize a bit belatedly, the act of reusing a title covers the duality in us of reader and writer. Both books are also—again, I spot this coincidence now—about wanting to write a novel, and then becoming caught up, implicitly, in writing about wanting to write the book that’s being written. Out of Sheer Rage is at once a parody and a poetic embodiment of such a project. Dyer wants to write a book on Lawrence; he can’t write the book; he writes a book about being unable to write that book. The narrative is Sisyphean, a version of Beckett’s “I can’t go on, I’ll go on.” And yet it’s infected with Lawrentian exuberance. Maybe there’s a name to such a pursuit.
Long ago—perhaps when I was in the midst of my third novel—I noticed that “writing” doesn’t begin when one puts pen or ballpoint to paper. (I wrote longhand and still do.) Writing a novel simultaneously happens in the midst of lived life, expresses a relationship with lived life, and is a departure from, a hiatus in, lived life. It may or may not be synonymous with the time spent putting words on paper. The time of writing really begins before one has written anything. This time is not really one of gathering material or preparation. You haven’t picked up a pen or notebook but are in a slightly altered state; you are writing. It isn’t absolutely certain either when the writing ends. When I set out to discuss my book, I meant not the story or the hardbound or paperback copy, but a dilation in time in relation to writing and rereading it.
In this context, let me tell a story that may belong inside the novel as much as it exists outside it. The book is about a writer called Amit Chaudhuri who visits Bombay in early 2011 to read at an event from his last novel, The Immortals. He grew up in Bombay, but no longer has a home there. He’s staying in a room in a club in Malabar Hill, opposite, as it happens, the building in which he spent most of his childhood. The other unsettling thing about this visit, besides the knowledge that he no longer has a home in this city, is the encounter with a Bombay that was attacked on November 26, 2008, a Bombay still fresh in the narrator’s mind from reports and TV footage, but which has been restored to normalcy. Bombay looks more or less the same, but it’s changed completely. The third source of unsettlement is the absence of the narrator’s school friend, Ramu. Ramu, the “friend of my youth,” is a recovering drug addict. He is now in Alibagh in a punitive rehab that’s closed off his access to the world. The narrator is surprised at the effect Ramu’s absence has on him. Most of the novel covers the two-day visit in 2011. Two short sections follow, in which the narrator revisits the city of his childhood twice. Ramu is back in Bombay in these sections.
None of this is different from things that have happened in my life. “My life” became, at a certain point, the book I was writing. Since then the life and the writing have been compelled to diverge, as if pulled by separate destinies. But, again, the two from time to time meet. Some of this has to do with my ongoing interactions with the friend who is Ramu’s prototype, who lives, like him, in Bombay, and, like him, was an addict. Even when I was beginning the novel, I was nervous of his response, as one would be of the response of a famous and abrasive critic, or, alternatively, of one’s most trusted reader. Of course, Ramu hardly read. He’d told me many times that he lacked the patience. Yet he had informers. I’d referred to him in a piece of writing in the past, and not changed his name, because, frankly, I thought I was paying tribute to him. (I see my writing as a tribute, rather than portrayal or analysis.) His informer had told him that I should have given him a cut from my royalties. My friend mentioned this half in jest; but he was a bit aggrieved too. “You could have changed my name,” he admonished me. I had no defense. I wasn’t sure he cared for immortality.
After starting work on this book, I’d tell him from time to time that I was writing about him. He said: “Just change my name”—which I had—“and don’t forget my share of the royalties.” A few months before the novel came out in India, a long extract appeared in a British magazine, and I went to Bombay in February to read from it at a literary festival. The evening before, walking through the dark arcades in Kala Ghoda, not far from the college he’d been educated at and where I’d studied for a year, we had a long conversation, sometimes standing on the pavement in the intensity of our exchanges, about why he was in the book. Of course, he wasn’t going to read it. The idea of reading the book—any book—was more repellent to him than figuring in it.
At the actual event the following evening, he sat at the back with another friend of mine, a scientist. He was complaining to him about various things, when I started to read. My other friend the scientist alerted him with, “This is about you.” But I’d chosen paragraphs in which he hardly made an appearance. I’m told he grumbled later: “What—I’m mentioned only once?”
I returned to Bombay in a few months for the publication of the novel. My friend called me soon after I’d gotten out of the airport. The book launch event was to take place that afternoon, at a venue not far from where he lived. He was in good spirits. It emerged quickly that his informants had read reports about Friend of My Youth in the press. They’d said good things about it. “He’s your truest friend,” one of them had told him—about me. Inebriated with these exaggerations, he was now happy and at ease. He was looking forward to the evening’s launch as an actor might to a lifetime achievement award ceremony.
At the event, crowded with literary readers and well-known people, he sat with a man, a recovered addict, three quarters into the back rows. By temperament, he hated social occasions and “pretentiousness.” He also shied away from running into people because of his history. But he enjoyed the launch. When, afterwards, the organizer asked me to join him for a drink at a club nearby, I told them I’d be with him shortly. I hung out with my two guests, and then persuaded them to accompany me to the club.
I found the organizer’s party of three on the far side of the bar on the first floor. My two companions said they’d rather sit at a separate table and not intrude. But the organizer went across to them and invited them to join the others. The two ex-addicts said no to the offer of a drink; alcohol can lead back to drugs. I hardly drink. We focused on snacking. I’d introduced my friend as an old friend from school. The conversation turned to my novel—its inception; how true it was. And then it turned to my friend: how long he’d known me; what he did. Suddenly, he said expansively, “I am Ramu.” He wasn’t looking at me. I was irrelevant. Everybody was silent. Then the organizer said, as you would to one who’s made a large claim at a party: “Really?” I marveled at my friend: at the loss of reticence and subterfuge about his social identity. It was as if he’d finally decided to endorse the relationship between writing and life. The others looked at him with skepticism, and with some of the disbelieving awe characters in Woody Allen films display when they run into fictional characters.
I felt moved by my friend’s statement that night. Partly it had to do with the fact that its shape reminded me of something. It came to me later. It was the words attributed to Flaubert: “Madame Bovary, c’est moi.”
What, if indeed he’d said such a thing, did Flaubert mean? In what way could you be a character you’d created; especially a character you knew was doomed? However difficult Ramu’s life might seem to me or, particularly, to himself, I wanted to firmly separate him in my mind from Madame Bovary. Yet Flaubert’s words don’t seem to me fundamentally hopeless, but shrewdly obdurate: an affirmation of something, and as much a confirmation as my friend’s statement was. The author produces a work; but the work too produces the author’s life. The author is a reader, and vice versa. The writing isn’t finished as long as we continue to believe, rightly or wrongly, that it is about us.