Sunday, July 5, 2009

The Art of the Novel and the Novels of Art

I read three novels recently: one translated from French and other two in Marathi. One common thing about the three novels is simply the fact that they should have been read long time back. But then I hardly read to keep up with the jones because jones's tastes and intentions differ from mine. The Counterfeiters by Andre Gide, Sat Sakam Trechalis by Kiran Nagarkar and Shyam Manohar's Hey Ishwarrao, Hey Purushottam Rao are three novels which can hardly be placed under a single category, except, of course, that of ` the novel'. This goes to demonstrate that there is no such fixed thing as ` The Novel' . Hence, I feel, the slogan that the Novel is dead is as meaningless as the slogan God is dead. These three novels, greatly different in style, theme e historical contexts , cultures and periods make strange ( should I say `queer'?) bedfellows. However, I discovered that there was a common preoccupation in all the three. Interestingly, while discussing the distinction between genre as category or type and particular texts as token i.e. the distinction between `poetry' and ` poem' or `drama' and ` play' with my students, I notice there there is no such distinction in the case of the novel. Nor can you discuss `fiction' as a category or type of writing and novel as its instance. This means there is no such particular fixed type of writing which can be classified as the novel in the strict sense to which particular novels can thought of as its tokens. This implies that with the novel there is no fixed mode of writing. Three novels which I read recently can be considered as an illustration of this fact.

Gide's famous modernist classic is not just a novel but also a very famous theory of the novel. Sat Sakam Trechalis is one of very important novels in Marathi, notable for its craftsmanship, style and intensity while Shyam Manohar's novel is remarkable because of its material which is actually unremarkability and ordinariness of day to day life. While the first two novels deal with extraordinary people in extraordinary circumstances, Manohar's novel deals with ordinary people in ordinary circumstances and what's more it suceeds in engaging reader's interest till the end. Written mostly in dialogic form with very little descriptive passages and interior monologues, Manohar's novel is almost a non-novel in which the things like style or technique seem to be conspicous by its proverbial absence.

The Gide's classic is the novelist's novel and the philosopher's novel because the subject matter is a complex philosophical question of the relationship between what is called ` reality' or `nature' and its representation, art or its `counterfiet'. And by implication, relationship between Reality and Art, and even Hetereosexuality (which is considered `real' and `natural') and homosexuality which is typically considered artificial, derivative and counterfiet. Gide turns the relationship on its head in a typically French way and demonstrates how the counterfeit is more real than reality and by implication, art is more real than nature and obviously,how homosexuality is more authentic than heterosexuality. Nagarkar's novel is notable for completely doing away with the traditional norms of fiction like linear plot construction, coherent structure and a fixed point of view and there-by implying that life also has no linearity, coherence and fixity. That life has no fixed formal logic is suggested in the title ` Saat Sakam Trechalis' that is `seven times seven is forty three'. Both Gide and Nagarkar are ` artists' who see their work as `art work' and lay great emphasis on craftsmanship and artifice. Manohar's novel attempts to capture reality without using any technical paraphernelia, including those found in realism. However, the novel does have an allegorical and philosophical dimension cleverly concealed in its apparent artlessness. The novel deals with a quarell between two higher officials of the agricultural department, Purushottamrao and Ishwarrao in a small village. These two officials were great friends once but now they are enemies. Their quarrel divides the office staff by forcing them to take sides. This causes huge amount of stress that affect the staff member's private lives. One of the chief official is fond of `adhyatma' or spirituality while the other one prefers to live practical and mundane life. One suspects whether Shyam Manohar is trying to suggest that the dichotomy between spirituality and the ordinary day to day life is cause of stress and disharmony by the means of covert allegory. The title ` Hey Ishwarrao , Hey Purushottamrao' suggests the split between the God and Man and by implication the spiritual and the mundane. If we read more into the novel, then we can say that it also deals with the split between art and life and Manohar trying to imply that this split is the cause of disharmony in our lives and society.

It seems that these novels seems to be preoccupied with themselves as novels, that is they are `metafictional' -overtly as in the case of Gide's gamey novel and covertly as in the case of Nagarkar and Manohar's novels.

However, I loved them for being so very different from each other and plan to take up Manohar's and Nagarkar's other novels in future.


shalin said...

Very interesting and educating! Thank you!

jasmine thakkar said...

Interesting. Will try to grab a copy of the first, if I can.