So, a week ago, I was reading David Markson’s Last Novel (which was predictably fascinating, in a very annoying and highly pleasurable way) and I came across the little factoid:
I think A Bend in the River is much, much better than Conrad
Pronounced the humility-drenched author of A Bend in the River
And somehow, out of all the unfamiliar vaguely literary anecdotes in that novel, it was this one which caught my eye and prompted me to look it up. Well, upon reading the opening lines of A Bend In The River (which is by Indo-Trinidian author V.S. Naipaul) I was totally hooked and had to read the rest. Those lines are:
The world is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it.
Nazruddin, who had sold me the shop cheap, didn't think I would have it easy when I took over. The country, like others in Africa, had had its troubles after independence. The town in the interior, at the bend in the great river, had almost ceased to exist; and Nazruddin said I would have to start from the beginning.
I have no idea why I found this to be so gripping and resonant. I mean, I’ve always been fascinated by the Indian Diaspora, and I know so little about it (particularly the part that did not end up in the U.S.), but this novel is not really about that (the protagonist is a Muslim shopkeeper of South Asian descent, but one whose family has been in Africa for centuries). It’s just about life in this small town, in a fictional country, that is deep in the interior of the continent.
Any long-time blog reader will know that I love socially-conscious writers: Charles Dickens, John Steinbeck, Sinclair Lewis, Aravind Adiga, Emile Zola, etc. But these writers often paint in very broad strokes, and end up creating works that are powerful and ring true, but which lack subtlety and thoughtfulness. And they’re the kind of writers who are often derided by those who just look for dense, mellifluous writing and well-observed characters. This kind of reader prefers fairly apolitical, often domestic novels, like those of Nabokov or Virginia Woolf.
This novel feels like a domestic novel. It feels like it’s about an adulterous affair, and about feeling alienated from society. It feels like it’s about dirty kitchen sinks and coming to terms with the death of one’s dreams. But it’s also about analyzing and categorizing entire societies.
It feels, sometimes, like a satire, but if so, it’s one without the broad portraits and the melodrama that I often associate with satire. Oh, and best of all, you know how I keep talking about how terrible I feel for enjoying poverty porn type novels (in my posts on The White Tiger and on The Handmaid’s Tale, for instance)...well, this has none of that. I didn’t feel sorry for anyone. You know how rare it is to hear about Africa and not be made to feel sorry for someone? It felt great not to feel even a slightest call to action emanating from the book. That alone is enough to make me love this novel.
Since you mentioned writing about Africa that’s meant to make you feel sorry for people, I’ll provide the obligatory Wainaina link, his definitive takedown of off-the-rack Africa writing: How To Write About Africa
rahul, i disagree with your distinction (nabokov v zola). but congratulations on another nature story. what does this mean for me? it will be exciting to grab nature from the rack in the tea room, flip to your work, and point it out to other scientists.
The distinction is one that Nabokov himself made. In his books of lectures, he’ll often deride novels with any sort of social purpose and mock what he called the “Upton Lewises”.. OF course, he also loved Tolstoy, but he loved him while explicitly deriding the social objective of, say, War and Peace.
I’m on shakier ground with Virginia Woolf. She herself was intensely political, as shown by her essays in Three Guineas and A Room Of Her Own. But her novels (and readership) seem, to me, to come from somewhere different.
But, more importantly, thanks for your congratulations! It’s out in yesterday’s issue, so it should be hitting you soon!
Oh, and in the memoir I just read, V.S. Naipaul is reported as singled out Nabokov in particular for derision, saying that the latter’s work is all flash and games, with nothing underneath. Which is not to say that a person can’t like both Nabokov and Naipaul, it’s just to say that the distinction I am drawing is one that has been appreciated by a number of other people and has been used, by some of them, to describe the bounds of their preferences in literature.