Sentimentality and nostalgia have ruined the rich possibilities afforded by the ‘migrant’ novel, feels Neel Mukherjee, recipient of the 2008 Vodafone Crossword Book Award for his novel Past Continuous. Excerpts from an email interview… ADITYA SUDARSHAN
Neel Mukherjee is a writer and critic, born in Calcutta and living in London, whose debut novel tells the story of a young man escaping the city of his birth in search of a better life abroad. Past Continuous was the joint winner of the 2008 Vodafone Crossword Book Award for English Fiction. In an email interview, Mukherjee discusses his novel, its journey in the world of publishing, and some of his making as a writer.
Past Continuous is your first novel and it’s obviously deeply felt. Did you worry at any stage about how your candour would be received? For example, did you worry that the scathing treatment Calcutta gets in this book might offend some of your readers? And now that the book’s been out a while, how would you assess the reaction of readers in this respect?
I do not have any memory of worrying about the reception its candour would get but the thought did cross my mind, that Calcuttans and Bengalis might murmur against the book. I was relieved when my anxieties turned out to be unfounded. I’d like to think it’s because I do not write as an “outsider”: I know the place and the period in my blood and my bones. So no one could accuse me of not “being” a Bengali/Calcuttan. It may also have something to do with the fact that the book’s attitude towards Oxford and London are as scathing and disaffected so it balances out the disenchantment with Calcutta.There have been plenty of books dealing with emigration from India to the West. But the protagonist is rarely as little nostalgic about what he is leaving and as single-mindedly bent on escaping, as Ritwik in Past Continuous. Were you aware, while you wrote this book, that you were treading a different emotional terrain from other ‘migrant’ novels? Is that something you deliberately set out to do?
Yes, it was a very deliberate move on my part. I was trying to look at exile as choice, as volitional and sought-out. The garden variety of nostalgia, which is nothing more than a spurious, confected sentimentality, has ruined the ‘migrant’ novel. If you must have nostalgia, there must be new ways of doing it. Aleksandar Hemon, the Bosnian-American writer, for example, looks back on his life in Sarajevo all the time, but he reinvents nostalgia for his purposes to the extent that we need to find another word for the feeling that charges his fiction. Nostalgia can be extremely powerful in the right hands: think of the intense longing in the films Andrei Tarkovsky made after he left the USSR. They wring your soul. Alas, no such thing marks Indian ‘migrant’ literature yet.You chose a gay protagonist for the novel, and yet the fact of his homosexuality didn’t seem to me central to any of his predicaments. He might have been heterosexual and had just the same crises – only the details would differ. Do you agree with this reading? Or do you think the novel has something specific to say about Ritwik’s sexuality?
I cannot tell you how much I agree with this reading. Ritwik’s homosexuality is a sideshow. The novel is not a “gay novel” in the sense The Swimming-Pool Library or The Spell are. I’m dismayed to hear it described as a “coming-out” novel or, worse, a “coming-of-age” novel. It could then, with equal justification, be called a novel about fruit-picking, or a novel about a posh London hotel. I was once told by a reader, who was disappointed, I think, that the book was not “about” homosexuality, that I “didn’t do anything with Ritwik’s homosexuality, just placed it in the novel without dealing with it”. What’s there to deal with? His sexuality is what it is, a given, and I was not interested in mounting an enquiry into it at all. It’s a novel “about” other things.When I finished reading Past Continuous that old line of verse came to me: East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet. Is there a sense in which you share that sentiment?
Yes, I do. I’m much more attracted to the miscegenation of cultures than to harmony. The vision of, say, Naipaul, of such complicated enmeshments and their intractable nature, excoriating though it is, speaks an undeniable truth that is lacking from the flimsier works written by lesser writers to “celebrate” multiculturalism or happy fusion of East and West. I’m much more interested in the long-term historical legacies of such (mostly baneful) encounters between worlds.I understand that before Picador India got it, the book was considered by many agents and publishers in the U.K. Were there any recurring comments or suggestions that you received from them?
Agents don’t usually send suggestions in this country if they turn you down. The agent who took me on made one very sensitive suggestion and I accepted it instantly because it went “ping” in my head. I have one very bad experience with a UK publisher, who gave it out to be understood that she wanted to publish my book and made me do a lot of changes, all outside a contract, only to reject it in the end. What was worse was that it was obvious from the outset that she simply hadn’t “got” the book: she wanted me to turn the novel into a fluffy, romantic, weepy Exotica Fest. She wanted the “smells and colours of India”, a love-story in Ritwik’s narrative, a love-story in the Miss Gilby narrative, something that would “wrench the heart” ... I’m really, really lucky I wasn’t published by her. I think of that experience as something akin to surviving a rail crash.You did a course in creative writing at the University of East Anglia. How useful was that experience in shaping you as a writer? Would you recommend a creative writing course to amateur writers?
It was one of the worst years of my life. The UEA Creative Writing MA was in irreversible decline by the time I joined the course: too many students; very mediocre teachers in my year; their craven kowtowing to the illusion that writers can be made out of people who are not readers; the inanity inherent in the “workshopping model” ... The anti-intellectualism that so defines the English was nowhere more starkly on show than in that dreadful MA course. What it does give you, and I think this is quite useful, is a kind of toughness, a resilience to both the dominant norm in writing produced by the Creative Writing Industry and to useless, content-free, unintelligent criticism. It can build a good filtering system in you, so that you can instantly detect rubbish in comments you get on your work and, equally, the perceptive stuff. It also teaches you to push against the zeitgeisty kind of writing that has taken over publishing and that is invaluable. So, in short, all you learn from a Creative Writing course is to go against it, a kind of walking the via negativa. On a more personal level, I should quit complaining about my time at UEA because it was there that I met the most exciting writer working in the UK today: Ali Smith. Alas, she didn’t teach my group.
As for recommending creative writing courses to amateur writers, yes, I suppose I would, very reluctantly, simply because it’s getting impossible to have your manuscript seen by agents if you do not have the rubber-stamp of a good writing school.Who are your favourite authors and what do you like about them?
The list is endless. I’ll pick just a few. Gustave Flaubert, because he took realism to its stretching point. Samuel Beckett, because he picked up the pieces after that and created new possibilities for fiction by taking prose back to zero. Mikhail Bulgakov, for that one novel, The Master and Margarita, which shows you what a wild, untrammelled imagination is capable of. Penelope Fitzgerald, for her left-field imagination, her left-field prose, her astonishing way with details. R.K. Narayan, because the whole world is there in his gentle, witty, immensely affectionate novels; irony had not become a default position for moral impoverishment yet. Richard Yates, for the glitchless surface of his psychological realism, under which runs a bleak vision of humanity. James Salter, for some of the most extraordinary prose in the Anglo-American world.