Monday, November 03, 2014

`Only Out of One's Personality and Style'

We speak confidently of writers who create worlds that coexist with our own. The artifice is especially convincing when the alternate universe – one that overlaps generously with our own, not the pipe dreams of science fiction or fantasy – is sustained across multiple novels and stories. Think of Balzac, Zola, Hardy and Faulkner. I don’t expect ever to visit India, a place first made attractive for me by Kipling, but that world has been fleshed out and carried convincingly into the twentieth century by R.K. Narayan (1906-2001), one of my favorite fiction writers. He wrote fifteen novels and six collections of stories, starting with Swami and Friends in 1935, and most are set in the fictional town of Malgudi in southern India. There’s no precise cognate for Narayan or Malgudi in American literature, but imagine Winesburg, Ohio as written by a plainer, less sentimental stylist with a sense of humor. 

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.”

No comments: