The dreariness of 'literature'

My son recently asked me –“Mom, what is the difference between fiction and literature?” My instinctive reply was, “In literature everyone suffers!” Certainly it seems that in recent examples of literature, especially from Indian writers, the emphasis is on trying to make the characters in the book go through as much unadulterated misery as possible.

My latest exercise in masochism is Kiran Desai’s 'The Inheritance of Loss.' So far there have been passages that are almost transcendentally poetic. Here is a typical example-

Up through the chimney and out, the smoke mingled with the mist that was gathering speed, sweeping in thicker and thicker, obscuring things in parts- half a hill, then the other half. The trees turned into silhouettes, loomed forth, were submerged again. Gradually the vapor replaced everything with itself, solid objects with shadow, and nothing remained that was not molded from or inspired by it. Sai’s breath flew from her nostrils in drifts, and the diagram of the giant squid constructed from scraps of information, scientists’ dreams, sank entirely into the murk.

Of course at the end of it the protagonists Sai, the judge and the cook have had their home invaded and ransacked by a ragtag group of Indo-Nepali insurgents. The flashback of their lives is equally dismal with people getting run over by an overloaded bus in Russia, the judge’s misspent youth and the orphaned Sai’s unhappy childhood in the convent. Everyone is miserable and I, the reader, have been co-opted into their wretched existence.

This ode to misery was also reflected in Manil Suri’s ‘The Death of Vishnu’ in which the homeless beggar’s death is used as device to explore the isolation in contemporary urban India. I found it so depressing I could not finish it. I did manage to read all of Rohington Mistry’s ‘Such a Fine Balance’ but only because I was stuck in a vacation with no access to bookstores. Surprising how a very well written book can still leave you with a bad taste in your mouth at the end.

I guess the idea behind these books (and other literary works) is to demonstrate the authors’ mastery of the language and their unique look at certain aspects of human experience. Possibly the reason books by Indian writers are so unappealing to me is that they lack the value of the exotic that they present to western audiences. As my father says in his pithy way, “If I want to learn about people’s miserable lives, I only have to look out of the window.”

Does literature have to be depressing?  Also, word-play is impressive, but do literary tomes have to be read with a thesaurus for a companion? Alexander McCall Smith’s No.1 Ladies Detective Agency series demonstrates wonderfully how simplicity can be as effective in bringing out the universal dilemmas of the human soul.

As a counterpoint to all this dreariness, I am also reading Wilkie Collins’ “The Woman in White.” Describing a (so far) minor character, he writes –

Some of us rush through life; some of us saunter through life. Mrs. Vesey sat through life….Nature has much to do in this world and is engaged in generating such a vast variety of co-existent productions, that she must surely be now and then too flurried and confused to distinguish between the different processes that she is carrying on at the same time. Starting from this point of view, it will always remain my private persuasion that Nature was absorbed in making cabbages when Mrs. Vesey was born, and the good lady suffered the consequences of a vegetable preoccupation in the mind of the Mother of us all.

Now those Victorians had the right idea. The language is gorgeous as can be inferred from the above passage, but it is the plot that keeps you wanting more. I am only a tenth of the way through the book and already there is a hint of mistaken identity, madness and the mischievous machinations of a mysterious malefactor.

Books in the nineteenth century were as popular as movies are today. They were often serialized and crowds would gather outside the publishers’ offices when a new installment was due. The Victorians are supposed to have had a particular delight in sensational and lurid plots but, to my mind, readers through the ages have always enjoyed drama. And a moral or a point of view that is wrapped around a deliciously gothic narrative is infinitely easier to digest.

I will probably end up finishing ‘The Inheritance of Loss’ if only for the elegance of the prose. But I will enjoy ‘The Woman in White’ much, much more.

4 thoughts on “The dreariness of 'literature'

  1. Shefaly

    You are brave aiming to finish ‘Inheritance of Loss’.

    After making my sibling run around to get me a copy on their visit to the UK, I have found the book less pleasant than a drudge through molasses, and I am a rapid reader, finishing 10-12 books in a month.

    The language is not lyrical; it is like a stale ‘imarti’, a convoluted north Indian sweet. The expression is cumbersome and reads as if the author tried too hard. So despite my best efforts to get acquainted with contemporary Indian lit, I can’t be bothered with finishing it…

    It is possible to write flowingly about difficult lives. I do not read a lot of fiction but ‘The Space Between Us’ by Thrity Umrigar and ‘The Husband of a Fanatic’ (non fiction) by Amitava Kumar of Vassar College are highly recommended.

    Thanks.

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  2. vidya Post author

    Sorry Shefaly, have to disagree on both points – I actually found Kiran Desai’s style rather moving and ‘The Space Between Us’ is yet another book that languishes partly unread on my bookshelves. Poor Sera with the abusive husband and the cruel mother-in-law. Poor Bhima with her wretched lower class existence and losing her daughter to aids. What misery! What unrelenting dukhipana! Maybe some redemption happens later but I’d already been burnt by ‘Fine Balance’ by then and I didn’t want to hang around to find out. About Thrity Umtigar’s style I quote the following from the book –
    “It was as if the devil had toyed with her, had infected her with a kind of dangerous hopefulness,pointing the way to Ashok Malhotra’s table, where grief and ridicule awaited her like a hot, steaming plate of batatawadas”!!! I call it the ‘hunt for the original simile’ – Writing 101!
    If you know of any contemporary Indian writers who can write a rollicking good story, let me know.:)

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  3. Pingback: Ode to misery at Blogbharti

  4. Shefaly

    Hi Vidya:

    At least ‘The Space Between Us’ could be read for the story. I find it hard even to visualise the landscape of Desai’s story.

    ‘A Fine Balance’ with its daunting size was the next on my list if only Kiran Desai would get out of his way. But now I am thinking of donating all to the Oxfam shop!

    As I mentioned, I do not make time to read fiction – I read an awful lot for my research and professional interests which are as different as technology, science policy, innovation, history and philosophy of science, and health – except when I consider it ‘cultural education’. Modern Indian fiction has left me a very bad taste in the mouth. The writing styles vary from bad, colloquial style (such as the batatawada note above) or very convoluted, I-made-so-much-effort language which is incomprehensible and dull, sending me screaming back to my history of science books which are much more lucid and real.. 🙂

    I did find one book from Chitra Divakaruni Bannerjee good but I shall have to check its name. I think it was the Mistress of Spices.

    Thanks.

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