Lit for Life

The deeper truth of novels

EXPLORING THE NOVEL Damon Galgut, Eleanor Catton and Irwin Allan Sealy in conversation with David Davidar. Photo: R. Ravindran  

From V.S. Naipaul to Tom Wolfe and Will Self, naysayers have foretold doomsday for the novel for a few generations now. While on one hand breathing its last, and on the other, powerful enough to warrant death threats, the novel swings along a wide continuum in our times. And it is this vast spectrum that David Davidar explored with Man Booker winner Eleanor Catton, two-time Booker nominee Damon Galgut and 1998-Booker nominee Irwin Allan Sealy, in their session, ‘The Deeper Truth of Novels’.

“I write dead novels,” opened Allan Sealy. ‘Dead’, in the market sense, he clarified, adding that how his books fared on store shelves didn’t matter to him enough to play to the galleries. “There are two kinds of novels in this world, and when I write one, I know whether it’ll sell or not,” he said. “The first is ‘The lifecycle of the Anopheles Mosquito’ kind of novel, and the second, ‘The Confessions of Sunny Leone’ kind. I tend more to the first sort,” he laughed. Irrespective of kind, Galgut seemed convinced of the novel’s survival simply because of humankind’s need for stories and narratives to make sense of our world. What he observed has changed though, is the novel’s centrality to our culture. The TV series, for instance, does all that the novel does, he said, but unlike reading which takes effort, it lets you passively absorb, thus drawing audiences in far easier.

Across the panel, Davidar noted that these writers had found their readership in “doing exactly as they pleased, in going against fashions”. Catton for instance, had written an 800-page novel, The Luminaries, while Allan Sealy’s latest book The Small Wild Goose Pagoda was structured like an almanac. “I write to an audience of just one: myself. And he’s quite a severe critic,” confessed Allan Sealy. “I face a complete darkness before I write. And out of that come wonderful, profound notions that I grasp and wring meaning from. For me, success lies on the page, not at the cash register.” Catton spoke of a far more daunting audience while she wrote; she said she imagined before her a cast of all the novelists she’d ever read, and the sheer overwhelming intelligence of that audience pushed her beyond her limits.

“If you want to write to change the world, a novel’s quite an ineffectual way to do it,” stated Galgut. For him, his purpose lies more in intuitively describing the way the world is, rather than what it ought to be. “When I read, I’m looking for a very subjective experience of the world. You read Tolstoy, or Chekhov, for instance, and you know you’re rubbing brains with a very particular sensibility, and that’s what I look to do when I write.” Deep within us, Galgut feels, human beings are very similar across borders; it is merely culture that differentiates us, and it was the place of novels to “fill in the gaps in human understanding that culture keeps us from.”

To tell those kind of stories, though, all three panellists said they required a deep connection with the people and places of their writings, for as Galgut put it, “Only by being very, very local, can you even hope to be global.” For Allan Sealy, who felt his oeuvre lay most in the doings of small-town India, a world he’d grown up in, continues to live within and hence knew best, even the canvas of a community of small people felt too vast for him. “I have to constantly reduce it to the individual, to one person’s story. All I feel about an issue has to be embodied in one character, and then I can touch the truth of just his life; it’s a politics of a very personal kind.”

In the age of “touristy novels”, where writers plot novels in settings and cultures they’ve parachuted in and out of, and in the age of quick censorship for the slightest dreamed offence, these novelists felt there definitely were topics they wouldn’t address, not from fear of being silenced, but from feeling inadequate to handle their depth. “Invention is definitely part of the equation of creation,” said Catton, “but personal experience has to inform it at some level. It would be wrong to indulge a completely uninformed sort of invention.” And that’s where it’s important for the writer to lay bare his limitations, felt Galgut. “Where I feel my experiential knowledge is limited, I build that into the narrative. Through the character, you will know where my map ends, for my map does end. At the core of novels lies exactly that tension, between the arrogance of assuming you can step into someone else’s shoes merely from observing from the outside, yet daring to make that imaginative leap from which all fiction arises.”

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Printable version | Dec 6, 2020 12:37:24 AM |

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