Tales of the trite and the trivial

Prose of the WorldModernism and the Banality of Empire: Saikat Majumdar; Orient Blackswan Pvt. Ltd., 1/24, Asaf Ali Road, New Delhi-110002. Rs. 425.   | Photo Credit: grjgm


The boredom of everyday existence shaped the narrative mode from late colonial modernism to the present

In classical literature, aesthetic pleasure is understood to be derived from such cathartic emotions as love, pity and fear. As against this, motifs of boredom and banality have gained importance in the literature of the post-Enlightenment period. Saikat Majumdar’s Prose of the World examines the way in which the banality and the boredom of everyday existence have shaped the narrative mode from late colonial modernism to the present day in the novels of four writers: James Joyce, Katherine Mansfield, Zoe Wicomb and Amit Chaudhuri.

The rise of English as a literary language of global importance impelled the choice of these ‘exiled’ writers whose fictional universe does not extend beyond their homelands that lie on the marginalised periphery excluded from the lively, exciting metropolitan culture centres. The conclusion drawn is that the ‘energization of banality’ is entrenched in the social experience of colonial modernity and not in an extension of metropolitan modernism. The questions raised are: does not narrating the banal lead to aesthetic failure? If so, how can boredom become a subject for aesthetic representation? Or is this modernist inventive mode of representation an aftermath of colonial anxiety? Or is it a new narrative force?

According to Majumdar, of all writers, James Joyce is the one who is best known to transform the banality of provincial life into a luminous narrative drive. The stories in Dubliners are a wholesale enactment of the aesthetic of banality, dealing with the mundane lives of the common folk. The attempt to foreground the unheroic reality of colonial life, its dreariness, and its loathsome monotony into artistic representation is best accomplished in Ulysses. “The soul of the commonest object, the structure of which is so adjusted, seems to us radiant. The object achieves its epiphany.” ‘The encyclopaedic abundance of ethnographic details,’ the seemingly muddled celebration of the trivia and the ephemeral — ‘the fetishism of facts’ in other words — spread out throughout the novel give it an artistic form and moulds the novel’s terrain. Majumdar is quick to answer Georg Lukacs’ charge that Joyce fails to probe the entire complex of society framed by capitalism. It is through the textures of fractured lives represented in the novel one is able to visualise the model of capitalism that shapes the urban landscape of Dublin. “In Ulysses, the boring, the banal, the trivial — everything that is truly peripheral, indeed, antithetical, to traditional literary imagination — is the very stuff of Joyce’s art”.

Bodily labour

Though Katherine Mansfield had self-proclaimed affinities with the Bloomsbury group, in the context of British modernism she is just a minor voice: but she played a major role in establishing the literary identity of her native country, New Zealand. Majumdar argues that for a proper understanding of her oeuvre she should be read in relation to her native ‘Maori’ culture and to the white settler colonial experiences. The women in Mansfield’s stories lead a cribbed and confined life within the practices of patriarchal control. They aspire for freedom from the daily chore from which there is no escape. It is the humdrum, tedium of bodily labour which offers daily sustenance that provides a positive narrative force to her fiction and non-fiction.

The major works of South African writer Zoe Wicomb (an exile in Scotland) were written during the period of the apartheid rule in South Africa. Her writings foreground trivialities, the predictable lifeless domesticity critiquing the grand narratives of the colonial domination and the local resistance to this control. The reiterative trope in her stories is ‘waiting’, a total cessation of any activity. Such a narrative, according to Majumdar, “provides a significant if overlooked alternative to the more visible and acclaimed modes of postcolonial narration”.

Everyday lives

The American Marxist critic Frederic Jameson, in one of his controversial essays had claimed that all Third World literatures are structured on the paradigm of the national allegory. This stirred an impassioned debate and Amit Chaudhuri, among others, showed his dissent with this tall claim. It is true that the domains of the private and public lives do not allow for a clear cut separation in the Indian context. It is equally true that following Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children which ushered a new era of Indian writing in English, a good deal of Anglophone Indian novels used the pattern of national allegories but not certainly the ones written in the regional languages. Majumdar makes an extensive analysis of Amir Chaudhuri’s oeuvre and proves that his fiction is preoccupied “with the marginal moments of the everyday in the lives of the middle and the upper middle class of urban India”.

Majumdar’s assiduously researched work shows us that narrating the grand and spectacular may be one thing but focussing on the quotidian life is quite another. It carries its own rewards. It is this form of narration that rejuvenates the contemporary global novel in English.

( M. S. Nagarajan was formerly Head of Department of English, Madras University)

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