The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- Clown and seer come together in a bourgeois colonial novelist

If I recall correctly, I first read A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man when I was seventeen. This was probably my first introduction to James Joyce; probably not. I have an indistinct memory of my cousins’ private tutor in Calcutta, an unforgettable (now dead) gentleman whom I wrote about in a story entitled, as it happens, “Portrait of an Artist” (these emerging connections aren’t pre-meditated), urging me to read “Araby”. I did, and didn’t understand it. I thought the fact that nothing happened in the story was a sign that the author was trying to draw attention to his cleverness.

Similarly, I disliked the Portrait. I think I had suddenly become quite puritanical at seventeen, and disapproved of any whiff of what in those days used to be called “experimental”. This is what must have drawn me, when I was twenty one, not only to Larkin the poet, but Larkin the critic; the Larkin of Required Writing. Great writing seems strange at first, said Larkin, but then becomes familiar and classic; but writers like Joyce and Pound, in spite of the passing of time, become no more approachable than they were at first reading. I discovered Larkin when I was an undergraduate in London, miserable, friendless, and afraid of the unfamiliar; Larkin’s writing is, in retrospect, a strange place for an Indian student to have found a home in, but, in the midst of the confusions of exile and of studying English literature, an odd, temporary home is what it did become.

How I went through University College, London, without a serious encounter with Joyce, I don’t know. But in 1986, the year I graduated and returned to Bombay, taking a year’s break before I journeyed to Oxford as a graduate student, I brought back with me a copy of Paul Muldoon’s just-published Faber Book of Contemporary Irish Poetry; this book introduced me, through selections of Patrick Kavanagh, Louis MacNeice, Seamus Heaney, and others, to an idea of “Irishness”. And, for me, Irishness became a facilitator of my recuperation of my Indian, specifically, my Bengali, sensibility; an avenue out of the all-encompassing definition and language of English literature, in which everything, deceptively, promised to fit in.

Irishness, to me, like Bengaliness, was a colonial, urban invention of, at once, great magnitude and particularity and specificity and location, a quite astonishing response to Empire, industrialization, and, among many other things, the English language. Muldoon, instead of writing an introduction to his anthology, places at its beginning an extract from a conversation, originally broadcast in 1939 on BBC radio, between F.R. Higgins and Louis MacNeice. In it, Higgins (himself a poet and a friend of Yeats) finds English poetry wanting mainly for its increasingly urban provenance and urbane character; and praises Irish poetry for “emanating from life, from nature, from revealed religion, and from the nation”; for emerging from a “sort of dream that produces a dream of magic”; and Irish poets for being “heretical believers”. (Higgins’s remarks are a remarkable rehearsal, in some ways, of Al Alvarez’s introduction, written roughly two decades later, to his influential anthology The New Poetry; except that Alvarez posits not Irish poets, but the Americans Lowell, Berryman, and Plath, and the latter’s husband, Ted Hughes, against English “gentility”.)

MacNeice, in his part in the conversation, tries firmly and gently to withdraw from, and to rectify, these dichotomies and positions: to absolve himself of the dictates of what Higgins calls Irish “blood-music”. “Compared with you,” he says, “I take a rather common-sense view of poetry. I think that the poet is a sensitive instrument designed to record anything which interests his mind or affects his emotions. If a gasometer, for instance, affects his emotions, or if the Marxian dialectic, let us say, interests his mind, then let them come into his poetry.” MacNeice is not so much abnegating his Irishness here, as relocating it from “nature, from revealed religion” to somewhere between the “gasometer” and “Marxist dialectics”. I don’t think it would have been possible for him to make this reply if he’d only had Yeats as a major precursor; if he’d not had Joyce, Stephen Daedalus, and Leopold Bloom behind him. For me, as it turned out, that location — between the gasometer and Marxist dialectics — became a far better place to recuperate, and tap into, Bengaliness than “blood-music”.

I began to write my first novel in 1986, about a boy visiting, from Bombay, his uncle’s house in an old area in South Calcutta; in 1988, in Bombay for the summer after my first year at Oxford, I finished the novel, began revising it, and fell ill in July with jaundice — Hepatitis A. After I was out of hospital, and convalescing, I decided to read Anna Karenina and reread the Portrait; the first perhaps because it was a great favourite of my mother’s, and to make up for my stubborn neglect of 19th-century fiction; and I don’t know what made me reinvestigate the second. I was 26.

When I finished them, I distinctly remember that I learnt something new about myself as a young writer, something I hadn’t realized before; that, although I ended up admiring Tolstoy’s great novel immensely, I would never (such, at least, was my conviction then) want to write that kind of novel; and, on the other hand, that I, not only as a writer, but as a person (if it’s possible to so easily separate the two), felt some deep affinity with Joyce’s aesthetic. It had taken me almost nine years to return to this novel and arrive at this conclusion. My respectful setting aside of Tolstoy and my embracing of Joyce cleared my head, at least temporarily, during that recovery from hepatitis, and seemed to tell me where I was headed as a writer.

It was, I suppose, a feeling of great relief I was experiencing — that I need not pursue the difficult aims of psychology and naturalism: that the uncovering of the miraculous in the post-industrial, post-colonial, metropolitan commonplace might be a legitimate literary ambition, which could be pursued with a simultaneous sense of purpose and delight. Joyce had undertaken this task all those years ago with a missionary’s implacable zeal and a young sophisticate’s detachment and mischievousness. To use Higgins’s words, he was a “heretical believer”; many of his pronouncements on art take their defiant tone from religious language, the language of transubstantiation and grace, and, as we know, are about epiphanies, the bread of daily existence, and god. But he performed the role of the heretical believer not with the seriousness a Higgins would have demanded — that seriousness he reserved for his craft, and for the purpose of removing himself from his deeply autobiographical fiction — but with a sort of comic exaggeratedness and bluff gusto; through narrative invention, particularly in the creation of the consciousnesses of the swooning Stephen Daedalus and the ironical Bloom. In the vocation of the bourgeois colonial novelist, as I discovered that July, clown and seer had come together.

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