On The Perfect Novel; A Short 2022 Dispatch
I only picked up this novel because a friend, a dearest friend, told me of a wedding toast where the book was quoted.
This year, the year 2022, as I see it from its fag end, from the end of the tunnel where the light ahead is more blinding than the darkness behind, where the months feel short, the days feel long, and the years feel outside of time — did 2021, truly, happen? — compelled me to reflect. Compelled, because of this urge to have time be accounted for, mean something, signify progress, insight, to feel like life has been worth living, that time is something we sculpt into smooth, explicable shapes, shapes we labour towards, pride in, leisure on the periphery — that even leisure should feel earned. We often talk of capitalism as a structure, because structures can be dismantled, reshaped, redeveloped. But what if capitalism is the air? That is more worrying, because no longer are we asking how to resurrect another world, but we are now wondering how to stop breathing in this one.
One, or is it two years ago, I stopped counting the books I read, because I found it incredibly odd that I had now found a way to make even leisure productive. How odd that it seemed so natural, so tempting, so incontestable. Not that not counting has somehow profoundly changed the way I read. Capitalism, the quest for eternal growth, for value extraction is the air, remember? We cannot shake it off. The desire for more, for brewing as much from as little, is always throbbing somewhere.
Yes, it does allow me to stop a book, throw it aside — as I did the Booker Prize and International Booker books, both — because I do not have to worry about having something to show for the time spent reading. But a faint guilt remains. Of leaving books aside. Of not finishing, because finishing is an ideal we have constructed and imposed on ourselves. That our days are not markers of time but economic units to squeeze dry. To see things through. That we begin things to end them. That the end justifies the time spent on the means. Is guilt produced by a culture of ends? Can we not just stew in our mediocrity, our lazy afternoons spent reading the same paragraph five times because the mind is occupied with love or lust or the impending meal, without regret colouring our memories of that time? What is this buzzing world we have birthed and enthusiastically inhabit? I think of how many people ask — how to read more, how to remember what we read better — and how few people ask — how to get more joy from reading — and wonder, how insurmountable is this gulf between these two cliffs?
This is what Murakami wrote, when thinking about end of marathons, that “the end of the race is just a temporary marker [and] it’s the same with our lives. Just because there is an end doesn’t mean existence has meaning.” In some sense, this grand idea of meaning making takes itself from this grand idea of personhood. That we exist as distinct beings, pursuing and performing distinctive forms of excellence. Is to deny ends, to deny the self? How to dent, deny the self?
The first novel I read, the first novel I remember reading was RK Narayan’s The English Teacher. It was summer holidays, and my brother and I were on a bed reading through the afternoons of Chennai’s rusting heat — he armed with his Sidney Sheldons. I do not remember much of the book, except the image of a man yearning for his dead wife in a field, but I do remember being perfectly fine, if occasionally annoyed, by my incomprehension. I had a friend who had begun reading Dan Brown and he told me that he would underline words he would not understand and at the end of every chapter he would go to the dictionary and clarify meaning. I thought, how wonderful. I thought, how boring.
I remember, years later, reading Arundhati Roy with that same perfectly fine, if occasionally annoyed comportment. I did not seem to understand metaphors. I was warned by my teachers the book would fly above me. When Roy spoke of a man gripping mangoes in the middle of tender sex, I absorbed it literally, wondering what possible role could fruit have during sex.
This project I have undertaken, to reclaim leisure, is I suppose a desperate attempt at reclaiming joy. When Marx said “Freedom begins where labour … ends”, he was pointing towards the shortening of the work week as a sure sign of melting fetters, but also of reducing the role of productivity in our imagination. A grotesque fixation, this productivity. A noble one, this joy.
One of the significant insights I got into myself this year was that I am incredibly unambitious. I do not have a strong, burning sense of a future for myself. Or if I ever had it, I had leaked it out of my personality. I imagine the best happening, the worst happening, but I don’t strategize towards it or insure myself against it. The future is a lingering thing, hazy at best, incomprehensible at worst. This chafes against a childhood dream of mine — to be significant. Can you be unambitious and significant? Not want greatness for yourself, but also want to be perceived as great. The hubris without the effort.
Perhaps what I truly want for myself is joy, and I seem to think joy has something to with being significant — I hope I am wrong. I do not want to become that character in Cha Cha Real Smooth, who very poignantly tells her son that sometimes, it is just easier to be sad. But also, I worry for myself. That I can cough for weeks at a stretch till my throat becomes barren and rough, cracked and dry, painful and red, the uvula swollen crimson, and I will still smoke, still refuse to go to a doctor, still imagine that things will be fine, the cough will subside and I do not have to do anything to make it stop. That things will always be fine, somewhat, so why force your way into the future? The perils of being unambitious could be death.
Smack in the middle of the year, or maybe leaning towards the latter half, I read what I considered the most perfect novel, one whose protagonist, like me, is driven by love but never ambition, by small joys, by cultural arrogance, a strong conviction for literature, but also a regret towards larger joys that you leave behind along with that ambition, “the attraction of a world he had abandoned”. Here is a man who “saw the future as an instrument of change rather than the object.” The protagonist is a professor, whose life is told after he dies. We are introduced to him as insignificant, his work languishing in some archives. No one reads him. No one reads about him. No one thinks about him. Here is an anti-protagonist. Someone who has not stained life, except the soil on his grave. Someone whose fragrance does not linger after his passing.
The novel is Stoner, the author John Edward Williams, the year of publishing 1965, the country America. In the summer of 2006, New York Review Books Classics reissued the book. A French novelist, Anna Gavalda, read a piece in The Guardian about the book, acquired its rights, translated it, propelling it towards fame in France, the Netherlands, Italy, Israel, and the U.K. The London Sunday Times as “The Greatest Novel You Have Never Read”. The thing about the novel I was struck by is that here is a protagonist one would never assume to take center stage, and yet, through describing the dull and drastic details of his life, Williams tells us, that there isn’t such a defined definite thing as a protagonist. That all we need is attention to be turned to the most subtle switches of our lives, and we, too, become protagonists. That all we need is the sympathetic, engaging, pedantic, squinting, serrated, capacious, tender, vicious eye of the narrator, to see ourselves as the broken, fumbling but trotting heroes of our own story.
I call the novel perfect, because it seemed so clean. So untainted by exaggeration, by the writer’s urge for turgid prose, for sentences that sound beautiful but mean nothing, or mean something so banal, you wonder why the author made the effort to make such platitudes feel ribboned and garnished. Take this sentence, see how light it weighs on your mouth as you read it, and how heavy on your heart — “He had conceived wisdom and at the end of the long years found ignorance.”
I only picked up the book because a friend, a dearest friend, told me of a wedding toast where the book was quoted. The friend seemed to not remember the quote, only the source, and the affect — a swoon — and so we began the archeological expedition, mining for it among Williams’ words. The only thing I knew, strapped, gloved, and ready to descend into the book, was that this was a quote worth citing at a wedding ceremony, that it was about love, and that it was eloquent and profound, so eloquent and profound that it was worth pursuing months after it was pronounced at some ceremony.
I found the quote, and mind you, this was an audio book I would hear on the cramped trains to and from work in 2x, so I would pause, write, rewind to rectify, pause, write, pause, imagining the commas, the colons, because how do you punctuate a spoken sentence? This was the quote. I knew it when I heard it. The friend concurred. Small joys.
“In his 43rd year William Stoner learned what others, much younger, had learned before him — that the person one loves at first is not the person one loves at last and that love is not an end but a process through which one person attempts to know another.”
Pages — hours, really — later I came across another quote. I thought to myself, this too might have worked well at the wedding ceremony. It was, afterall, a quote about love pronounced with acute, unshowy profundity. But it was tinged, instead, by this aching sadness, of rotting elegantly through life, of turning years over in your head and seeing the flux as one of neither gaining knowledge nor ignorance, but just like when the light shifts, the world appears different, when the years turn, love, too, transforms its sheen, its depth. So as the years turn, as 2022 is sedimented over to become 2023, may we, too, feel differently about love. That is all.
“In his extreme youth Stoner had thought of love as an absolute state of being, to which if one were lucky one might find access. In his maturity he had decided it was the heaven of a false religion towards which one ought to look at with amused disbelief. A gently familiar contempt. An embarrassed nostalgia. Now in his middle age he began to know it was neither a state of grace nor an illusion. It was a human act of becoming. A condition which was invented and modified moment by moment day by day by the will, the intelligence, the heart.”
I have been less frequent here, I know. This is because I began a bi-weekly column Counter Culture with the Frontline Magazine. It is essentually what I used to write here, but edited and thus less unwieldy, more focused. Do read them when they come out. I post on Twitter and Instagram about them.
Beautiful concept... :)
Loved the little quotes man!