May 27, 2020
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Bloodaxe’s edition of the Collected Poems of Arun Kolatkar, edited by Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, reveals how provocative and inventive its bohemianism once was.


Earlier this year, there was an unexpected furore in the pages of the Guardian—of the kind that would probably fail to exercise newspapers in India. A report announced that Gabriel Josipovici, a former Weidenfeld Professor of English at Oxford, had, in his forthcoming book, What Ever Happened to Modernism?, laid into the British writers’ old boys’ club: Amis, Barnes, McEwan, Rushdie. ‘Feted British writers are limited, arrogant and self-satisfied, says leading academic,’ ran the headline. In Britain, self-satisfaction continues to be a cardinal sin, while, in India, it hardly exists at all, because not being aware of something is to annihilate its existence (‘I think, therefore I am’). Josipovici replied that his book was only tangentially about these writers; that the report was mischievous; that far more important questions had been addressed in his short monograph. The upshot was that it got much more attention than it might have otherwise, and its title’s question received an airing. Josipovici has actually been around for a long time, part of a British avant-garde that seemed to vanish under Thatcher and Blair, but might just, in the uncertainty that surrounds the free market, be about to make a comeback. Josipovici’s view of modernism is, in a fundamental sense, Eurocentric and conventional—it is, for him, primarily about disjunction, about a moment in history in which language ceases to organically fit with or connect to ‘reality’—but his readings and the texts he uses to further his argument are often unexpected and illuminating. The book’s publication led to an animated conversation for two weeks in putatively middlebrow Britain on the significance of modernism today: could a similar conversation take place in India? I don’t think so, except among a handful of Indian English poets, and some of the so-called bhasha writers. Indians tend to view the word ‘modernity’ with embarrassment, because it’s largely synonymous, for them, with ‘Westernisation’. And no one considers a free discussion on the arts and culture a discussion of particular urgency.

That there’s more to British writing than Barnes and Amis—that there’s been more to it for years, in fact, with a strain of avant-garde surrealism practised by J.G. Ballard and Iain Sinclair—is gestured towards by the persistence of Geoff Dyer, the English laureate of slacking, and punitive enemy of linearity, plot, and anything that resembles ‘work’. His new book of essays, Working the Room (a teasing title), covers his various enthusiasms, including jazz, photography, D.H. Lawrence, and a particular kind of doughnut. Any writing of interest, non-fiction or fiction, must respond with alacrity to the present moment, and Dyer’s essays do this admirably. He’s fortunate in now having a publisher, Canongate, which values the idiosyncrasy of  that response, as should we.

Dyer has been ranting for years against the conventional novel (in books that are often sold as ‘novels’); and in David Shields, whose Reality Hunger also came out in 2010, he has an ally. Shields’s book is an attack on the unproductive, unhelpful divide between fiction and non-fiction, and in Reality Hunger he inveighs against what Naipaul called ‘made-up stories’. This is a theme common to the three books I’ve mentioned so far: a dislike of what Roland Barthes once called the ‘unreal time of cosmogonies, myths, histories, and novels’, which, in the case of the novel, usually begins, according to Barthes, with a sentence like ‘The marchioness went out at five o’ clock.’

Another of Geoff Dyer’s enthusiasms, Dayanita Singh, published a terrific book last year, Dream Villa, in which she explores the possibilities of colour and artificial, nocturnal light. What are the convergences that bring these disparate figures and publications together? I suppose that one should be grateful that in a publishing year that looks, at first glance, the same as any other in the last decade should contain such convergences. And what of the Indian avant garde? Bloodaxe’s edition of the Collected Poems of Arun Kolatkar, edited by Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, reveals how provocative and inventive its bohemianism once was. Disorienting aphorisms about bilingualism and translation; poem-sequences that transform the mundane; surreal translations from the Marathi oeuvre; Marathi Bhakti poets reworked in a macho American noirese; and hardly any mention of India—what more could one want from a book? Since I mention poetry, I should say that Michael Hofmann’s translations of the poems of the German poet Guenter Eich, Angina Days, is one of the best books to come out in 2010. Eich’s acerbic, chafing, sensuous verses, dealing with life’s most basic anxieties and activities, refute, through a combination of stubbornness and technique, Adorno’s stricture about the impossibility of poetry after Auschwitz.  

On my reading list is Amitava Kumar’s A Foreigner Carrying in the Crook of his Arm a Tiny Bomb, for not having ‘India’ in the title.

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