Now I’m reading for the first time Narayan’s A Writer’s Nightmare: Selected Essays 1958-1988 (Penguin Books India, 1988). He writes in his introduction of an English professor in the nineteen-thirties who opened his lecture with the same words every year: “Definitions of the Essay are Numerous and Positively Bewildering.” Narayan denies both claims and adds: “The poor man suffered this bewilderment throughout his career.” Instead, Narayan proposes two traditional categories – the personal (or subjective) and the impersonal (or objective). He adds that his father was a “fervent admirer” of Carlyle, Macaulay and Froude, whom the son bravely declares “unreadable.” I’m reminded of the enthusiasm for Shakespeare by the inhabitants of his native East Bengal town described by Nirad C. Chaudhuri (1897-1999) in The Autobiography of an Unknown Indian (1951).
Narayan’s preference for the familiar or personal essay is hardly surprising. He tactfully describes Carlyle & Co. as “tough writing unrelieved by any light moment,” and writes:
“…I have always been drawn to the personal essay in which you could see something of the author himself apart from the theme –a man like Charles Lamb, or more recently, E.V. Lucas or Robert Lynd….The personal essay was enjoyable because it had the writer’s likes, dislikes, and his observations, always with a special flavour of humour, sympathy, aversion, style, charm, even oddity.”
Narayan describes a once popular genre, widely published in newspapers and magazines, and collected between hard covers, but now almost extinct (save for Joseph Epstein and a few bloggers). The earnest, political and pretentious have usurped a place once occupied by the witty, learned and charming. As Narayan says later in his introduction, “the discursive essay can come not out of scholarship or research but only out of one’s personality and style.”