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

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If tattoos could talk: Glen Campbell's life in music

The late singer made a trade of music, and made it look easy.

There was a rudimentary tattoo on his left upper arm, which he’d given himself at the age of nine: a small cartoon dagger, scratched with a needle and filled with ink, 72 years ago, in the yard of the house he shared with 11 brothers and sisters in Bills­town, Arkansas. In his last years, doing interviews about Alzheimer’s in his final home of Nashville, he’d wear T-shirts and you could just make out the tip of the dagger emerging from his sleeve. But for decades you wouldn’t have seen it, beneath flower-power shirts on his late-1960s TV show, or the fitted tuxedos of the 1970s, as he played the “William Tell Overture” on his guitar with the philharmonics of the world.

His accent came and went, too, as he adapted his vowels and crossed his Ts for the sophisticated compositions of his regular musical partner Jimmy Webb, another southerner making his way in LA. Campbell was the son of a sharecropper but he didn’t like getting his hands dirty. When he left home at 14 to become a musician, it was a practical move for the family – the money was good, and without him there was more room in the house.

As the first-call guitarist in the elite LA session group the Wrecking Crew, he played on 500 tracks in one year. Carole Kaye, who later delivered the bass line on his most famous song, “Wichita Lineman”, told me they all went out to buy big diamond signet rings with their wages one day. Glen peered into his: “Hey, look, I can see Russia,” he said.

Dirt poor, down-home, authentic – he may have been those things, but it was not his business to claim to be. He wasn’t a songwriter; he was an interpreter of other people’s material – a concept almost alien in a modern musical climate that expects songs to be a reflection of an artist’s inner life. He would take the most urbane track and throw it back at his audience with an incandescent ordinariness. “It is like a bird flying, it’s like somebody breathing, it is easy for him,” his musical director TJ Kuenster said.

Exactly how he achieved it was more mysterious. He had a habit of speeding things up, injecting light and energy into songs and turning them into something kinetic and fresh. His vocal entries often lagged a fraction of a second behind the beat, making each one sound like a spontaneous thought.

On his prime-time TV show, with his hair sprayed into a high wave, he’d awkwardly navigate the light comedy of the day: the Smothers Brothers riding hippos through the studio, or the skits with Sonny and Cher. His talking voice was chirpy; then he’d sit down to play Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” and it was as if a switch had been flicked. His face fell into a state of instant clarity, intense but faraway, with sometimes a hint of pain – though you knew the pain wasn’t his.

He never sang about himself, which made the private self a separate entity. There was the lost Glen of the late 1970s, blank of eye and huge of beard, free­basing cocaine in a Vegas hotel room, having fisticuffs with his girlfriend. There was the middle-aged golf-playing Republican, baptised in a freezing creek under the watch of his younger wife; then tanned and born again, happily doing his Donald Duck impressions on stage. There was the lapsed Glen who hit the whiskey again as a pensioner, drove drunk, attempted to knee a policeman in the genitals, ran down a freeway, got snapped for a famously bad mugshot and spent ten days in prison, where he still managed to perform an impromptu set on a couple of hay bales.

But at any point in the 55-year ride, amid the personal dramas and lapses of musical taste, he’d open his mouth and what came out was deeply serious. You couldn’t imagine him writing a shopping list but he had an ear for poetry – teeing up particular lines in Webb’s songs for his audience, asking how someone so young could write “Asleep on the Wind”, an impressionistic portrait of a legendary bird that spends its whole life in the air. He’d take Webb’s tracks away and arrange them for his guitar, playing them back at their composer in his trance-like state. When the song was over, he’d snap out of it and laugh. “Those chords! If I start thinkin’ about them I miss ’em! I love it! Write me another one like that!”

When I noticed the tattoo sticking out of his T-shirt, faded like a biro scrawl, it struck me as strange that the same piece of skin had passed through so much of 20th-century music, with its changing notions of what it means to be “authentic”. The arm had travelled from sacred harp singing in Steinbeck’s south to Bob Wills’s hayseed country shows in the golden age of 1950s TV; from Vietnam protest songs to the stifling world of residencies in Las Vegas – and finally to the life of a “country legend”, via the theatres of Missouri and the golf courses of Arizona. In middle age, he recorded religious albums that sounded as pure as “Wichita Lineman”. Once again, he was acting as a funnel, for a different kind of light.

He was the real deal not because he turned his personal experience into a marketable commodity but because he made a trade of music, and made it look easy. He followed the gold rush, sold himself, got himself back just in time – yet in his playing, and the very touch of his tongue on his teeth, he was astonishingly truthful. It was the ultimate life in music, and in that sense, too, he is a piece of time lost. 

Kate Mossman is the New Statesman's arts editor and pop critic.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear