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.

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

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

This article first appeared in the 19 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Why aren’t young people working

Getty
Show Hide image

Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

0800 7318496