Telling Tales by Amit Chaudhuri: The principle mode of our epoch isn't business, but business

Deborah Levy is charmed by Amit Chaudhuri's introspective and entertaining columns and essays, which range from busyness, to James Joyce and Kokata.

Kolkata.
Case study: Chaudhuri explores the new Kolkata. Photograph: Ashok Sinha / Gallery Stock.

Telling Tales: Selected Writings, 1993-2013
Amit Chaudhuri
Union Books, 320pp, £18.99

What is writing? This seems to be the question implicitly being asked in Telling Tales, a selection of Amit Chaudhuri’s engaging, introspective and entertaining columns for the Telegraph in Kolkata, as well as his other nonfiction writing. Written over 20 years, they showcase his ability to reach a diverse audience without losing intellectual verve.

In “Doing Busyness”, Chaudhuri tells a tale about time and the ways in which our status is supposed to be promoted if we never have enough of it. But does being “busy” dull our senses and flatten our imagination? Chaudhuri, who must have quite a lot on his plate (he is an acclaimed novelist, professor of contemporary literature at the University of East Anglia and composer of music), reckons that the “principal mode of our epoch isn’t business, but busyness”. He suggests that being less busy provides “special opportunities for receptivity to the world”.

I couldn’t agree more. There is nothing more boring or begging than the performance of busyness, yet it’s easy to see what it is we fear by being seen to have time on our hands: “To not be busy is, in a sense, to be superfluous.” To be blanked by someone who is always “in a meeting” is more complicated than we might admit. Chaudhuri tells us that a meeting is “a way of indicating a hierarchy of conversations”. In a flattening culture of targets and outcomes, have we become senior managers of our inner lives, too? Chaudhuri picks up on this theme again in “What Is an Adventure?” and astutely answers his question: “when chance and creativity gain precedence over outcome and reward”.

Chaudhuri took a chance with the content of his column over the years and decided that it was possible to write about anything at all. We can be assured that his attention will always fall in an interesting place, from the complexity of being described as a post-colonial writer – “Both the affiliations and the oppositionality of the ‘post-colonial writer’ seemed too clearly defined” – to the way people form queues to purchase the savoury snack chanachur and onwards to the idea that both cats and women are unfathomable to men; not to mention their fortunate feline position in a culture of crazed celebrity gawping: “Cats cultivate privacy and escape the human gaze in a way that celebrities no longer can.”

“A Sense of Elsewhere” tells us of a visit to New York in 1979, when it was “the city of Ginsberg and Crane”. If this city (at the time in decline) was the new world, it was as if Chaudhuri “was trespassing on the remnants of a civilisation; the buildings on the avenues on the Lower East Side had a Jurassic air”. I am not going to list 20 years’ worth of a newspaper column but I urge you to enjoy the quiet humour put to work in Chaudhuri’s intimate and masterly short essays on everyday life in the changing, volatile city of Kolkata.

The last section of the book treats us to a selection of literary journalism and critical writing. As in the best conversations with a scholarly and amiable companion, we can move from cats to the melancholy of Walter Benjamin. “A Strange Likeness” pays homage to Susan Sontag’s incandescent essay “Under the Sign of Saturn” while giving us another spin on Benjamin’s sensibility:

When I look at Benjamin’s face . . . I realise that I don’t see first and foremost a “western” man; I see someone familiar, someone who also could have been a Bengali living at any time between the end of the 19th and the middle of the 20th centuries . . . The features, characterised not by nationality or caste but by introspection, gentility and the privileges of childhood, mark him out as a bhadralok – the Bengali word for the indigenous, frequently bespectacled bourgeoisie that emerged in the 19th century.

“There Was Always Another” is his intriguingly titled introduction to Shiva Naipaul’s first two novels, Firefliesand The Chip- Chip Gatherers, written as forewords for the Penguin Classics editions. Here, Chaudhuri reflects on the varying subjectivities of writing families (William and Henry James, the Brontës, the Tagore family) and points out that they are usually “quite odd in their intensities”. What kind of sense do siblings make of the same material – parents, home, country? He correctly observes that the excellent novels by Naipaul (born Shivadhar Srinivasa Naipaul) were read “lazily” by critics. Perhaps it was because his fiction was imbued with a combination of “comic mischief and pain” that it proved so difficult for him to jump out of the gigantic shadow of his elder brother, V S Naipaul.

And something else, too: “There’s an anarchy of will in Shiva Naipaul’s world which thwarts its characters’ imaginations.” Unlike his brother, “who is at once haunted and tormented by a sense of completeness deriving from his lost Hindu, historical past, Shiva Naipaul has no real conviction in authenticity or wholeness; it’s almost out of this state of negation that he creates his variously populated novelistic world.” Chaudhuri considers Shiva Naipaul’s first two novels to be masterpieces – by which he means “works that impeccably adhere to the most difficult of literary conventions while also uniquely subverting and exceeding them”.

If Shiva Naipaul deserves to be reread, Chaudhuri suggests that Roland Barthes could also do with a reappraisal. Barthes’s assorted writing should not just be viewed “through the prism of semiotics”, because he “is genuinely someone in whom categories such as poet, fiction writer, essayist and critic break down”. Chaudhuri insists that what Barthes (despite his intimidating academic credentials) desired from language was “liberation”, the joy and sensation found in the uncertainty of life. Not only is his writing “a revelation”, it is more comprehensible “than most newspaper reports and book reviews”.

Chaudhuri’s intellectual project is not so much to cross academic boundaries as to remove the sign that says: “No playing on the grass”. Like Barthes (and Lacan), he sees merit in concentrating less on the meaningful and more on the apparently meaningless. For this reason I relished every tale and essay here, not least because Chaudhuri subtly politicises the ways in which both writing and writers are culturally placed, described and sanitised.

He quotes James Joyce trying to wriggle out of the “meaningful” and take it somewhere else –often to somewhere rooted in the mysteries of everyday life, whether it be on the streets of Dublin or the streets of Kolkata. “When asked by an interviewer if Molly Bloom’s climactic monologue in Ulysses was an example of ‘stream of consciousness’, he reportedly said, “When I hear the word ‘stream’ . . . what I think of is urine and not the contemporary novel . . . Molly Bloom . . . would never have indulged in anything so refined as a stream of consciousness.”

Deborah Levy is the author of “Black Vodka” (And Other Stories, £12) and “Swimming Home” (Faber & Faber, £7.99), shortlisted for the 2012 Man Booker Prize