[Edward Said | 1935–2003]
nationhood’s a falsehood.
In Imagined Communities, a widely acclaimed work that was first published in 1983, Benedict Anderson (1936–2015; Irish political scientist and historian) examines the creation and global spread of the ‘imagined communities’ of nationality. The media also creates imagined communities, through usually targeting a mass audience or generalizing and addressing citizens as the public. Another way that the media can create imagined communities is through the use of images. The media can perpetuate stereotypes through certain images and vernacular. By showing certain images, the audience will choose which image they relate to the most, furthering the relationship to that imagined community.
To have one nation means there must be another nation against which self-definition can be constructed. Anderson is thus arguing for the social construction of nations as political entities that have a limited spatial and demographic extent, rather than organic, eternal entities. Further,
It is imagined as sovereign because the concept was born in an age in which Enlightenment and Revolution were destroying the legitimacy of the divinely ordained, hierarchical dynastic realm … nations dream of being free … The gauge and emblem of this freedom is the sovereign state.
— Anderson (1991, p. 7 original emphasis)
Anderson argues that the concept of the nation developed in the late eighteenth century as a societal structure to replace previous monarchical or religious orders. And arguably then, falls into the “historicist” or “modernist” school of nationalism along with thinkers like Eric Hobsbawm. Simply put, this school of thought argues hat nations and nationalism are products of modernity and have been created as means to political and economic ends.
Regardless of the actual inequality and exploitation that may prevail in each, the nation is always conceived as a deep, horizontal comradeship. Ultimately it is this fraternity that makes it possible, over the past two centuries, for so many millions of people, not so much to kill, as willingly to die for such limited imaginings.
[Vladimir Nabokov | 1899–1977]
Vladimir Nabokov was a Russian-American novelist and poet. He wrote the novel Lolita in 1955.
It was love at first sight, at last sight, at ever and ever sight.
Narrated by a middle-aged man named Humbert Humbert, the book tells the story of his obsession with a 12-year-old girl named Dolores Haze (Lolita) and the sexual relationship he forces her into. A literary critic asks, “Is he in love or insane? A silver-tongued poet or a pervert? A tortured soul or a monster? Or is he all of these?”
Humbert Humbert’s seduction is one of many dimensions in Nabokov’s dizzying masterpiece, which is suffused with a savage humour and rich, elaborate verbal textures. In the novel, Dolores eventually escapes Humbert, who then goes on to have an emotional breakdown.
I think it is all a matter of love; the more you love a memory the stronger and stranger it becomes.
Indeed and, ain’t this so very true:
The breaking of a wave cannot explain the whole sea.
[French | 1871–1922]
Proust was a French critic, and essayist who is now best known for his monumental novel: In Search of Lost Time (sometimes known as: Remembrance of Things Past). This was published in seven parts between 1913 and 1927. Today, Proust is considered by critics and writers — e.g., Melvin Bragg and guests — to have been one of the most influential authors of the 20th c.
Love is a striking example of how little reality means to us.
Nostalgia… do you want to be dragged there? Then read on.
Happiness is beneficial for the body, but it is grief that develops the powers of the mind.
As Proust saw it:
The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new lands but seeing with new eyes.
In Search of Lost Time — a novel of over 4,000 pages — is considered by many to be the definitive modern novel. This is not least because it has influenced directly and indirectly generations of writers, in 1922 Virginia Woolf said, “Oh if I could write like that!” Vladimir Nabokov — author of Lolita and himself considered one of Europe’s most talented writers of prose — said in a 1965 interview, that the greatest prose works of the 20th c. were “Joyce’s Ulysses, Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, Bely’s Petersburg (see Endnotes), and the first half In Search of Lost Time.”
Lost in Time isn’t exactly easy reading but somehow you can get carried along by them if you can allow yourself to fall int the flow or, you can begin by listening to it in this ten part, ten hour BBC dramatisation:
(listening to the radio’s easier on your green eyes Jay; yes Jay, it’s easier on your brown eyes too Jay.)
In Search of Lost Time, is compiled in a number of volumes:
And has been republished a great many times…
To somehow summarise the work, many describe it as something of a fictional autobiography by a man whose life almost mirrors that of Marcel Proust. The first forty pages of the novel describe the narrator as a young boy in bed awaiting, and as a middle-aged man remembering, his mother’s goodnight kiss. Though it is not obvious to the reader at the time, these first forty pages also establish most of the themes of the next seven volumes and introduce most of the major characters. The rest of the novel traces the chronology of Marcel’s life over the next fifty years and the lives of his family, friends, and social acquaintances. The novel concludes at a grand party in Paris attended by Marcel and most of the remaining characters.
Because the story is told with two “voices,” that of the narrator as a young boy and also as an older man recalling his youth, it is sometimes difficult to tell Marcel’s age at any particular moment in the novel. The reader must rely on the context of the action.
Two of the novel’s major themes concern Marcel’s frustrated desire to become a writer and his despair at the corroding effect of Time, which makes all human feelings and experiences fade into nothing.
Unhappy love affairs are a leitmotif of the novel.
The best known is that of Charles Swann, which could act as a template for all the rest and is described in “Swann in Love.” The tension and swing of power between lovers and the inevitable disappointment when we achieve the object of our desires is a constant theme throughout the book. (Swann’s love for and pursuit of Odette takes him from the pinnacle ofsmart society to the depths ofsocial rejection and eventual oblivion.)
All the book’s love affairs essentially describe:
the futility of trying to possess or even understand another person
Love is a metaphor for all human experience. According to Proust:
all man’s suffering is caused by his desires [and] achieving those desires only increases the suffering.
1. — Bely
— Andrei Bely
Andrei Bely (1880-1934) was educated at Moscow University where he studied science and philosophy, before turning his focus to literature. In 1904 he published his first collection of poems, Gold in Azure. Petersburg, was published in 1916.
Petersburg is Bely’s masterpiece and it is generally considered to be a vivid, striking story. Bely’s richly textured, darkly comic and symbolic novel pulled apart the traditional techniques of storytelling and presaged the dawn of a new form of literature. This book is considered to have heavily influenced several literary schools, most notably Symbolism, and his impact on Russian writing has been compared to that of James Joyce on the English speaking world.
The novel is set at the heart of the 1905 Russian revolution. In the book. a young impressionable university student, Nikolai, becomes involved with a revolutionary terror organization, which plans to assassinate a high government official with a time bomb. But the official is Nikolai’s cold, unyielding father, Apollon, and in twenty-four hours the bomb will explode. Petersburg is a story of suspense, family dysfunction, patricide, conspiracy and revolution. It is also an impressionistic, exhilarating panorama of the city itself, watched over by the bronze statue of Peter the Great, as it tears itself apart.
2. — Ruskin
The best thing in life aren’t things.
[English | 1816–1855]
Charlotte Brontë was born in Yorkshire in 1816. As a child, she was sent to boarding school along with a number of her sisters but when two of those sisters died there, she was returned home and received the remainder of her education there. This homeschooling was also provided to two other of her younger sisters–Emily and Anne–who also went on to become authors of note. Jane Eyre–her seminal work–was first published in 1847 under the pen-name Currer Bell. Like other female writers of that time (and other times too) Charlotte felt her books would be more widely read if she hid her gender…
It is said that Jane Eyre is a novel of intense emotional power, heightened atmosphere and fierce intelligence. Indeed, it dazzled and shocked readers with its passionate depiction of a woman’s search for equality and freedom on her own terms. According to William Makepeace Thackeray, it is:
The masterwork of a great genius
Its heroine Jane endures loneliness and cruelty in the home of her heartless aunt and the cold charity of Lowood School. Her natural independence and spirit prove necessary when she takes a position as governess at Thornfield Hall. But when she finds love with her sardonic employer, Rochester, the discovery of a shameful secret forces her to make a terrible choice…
All my heart is yours, sir: it belongs to you; and with you it would remain, were fate to exile the rest of me from your presence forever.
Set during the Napoleonic wars at a time of national economic struggles in the United Kingdom, Shirley provides an unsentimental, but passionate depiction of conflict between classes, sexes and generations. The key protagonist is Robert Moore, a struggling manufacturer who has introduced labour saving machinery to his Yorkshire factory, causing a ferment of unemployment and discontent among his workers. Robert considers marriage to the wealthy and independent Shirley Keeldar to solve his financial woes, yet his heart lies with his cousin Caroline, who, bored and desperate, lives as a dependent in her uncle’s home with no prospect of a career. Shirley, meanwhile, is in love with Robert’s brother, an impoverished tutor – a match opposed by her family. As industrial unrest builds to a potentially fatal pitch, can the four be reconciled…
Love & shame & despair & & &
In line with its title, The God of Small Things explores how the small things affect people’s behaviour and their lives. This book, which is highly worth reading, is Arundhati Roy’s first published novel. It vividly depicts the childhood experiences of fraternal twins whose lives are destroyed by the “Love Laws” that lay down “who should be loved, and how. And how much.”
One interpretation of Roy’s theme of forbidden love is that love is such a powerful and uncontrollable force that it cannot be contained by any conventional social code. We could also assume that conventional society unwittingly or somehow wittingly seeks to destroy real love… in this work (and in so many other books and poems and paintings) love is consistently connected to death, ‘loss’ and sadness.
Roy often denies that she’s been influenced by Salman Rushdie’s prose, yet there is clear evidence that there is some (it is a truism indeed that we are beholden to some degree to the shoulders of yesterday’s people; our predecessors; our parents etc.). One example is the level of foreshadowing that occurs throughout Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, and like Rushdie (and models Günter Grass and Gabriel García Márquez) uses an incongruous tone to relate to episodes of sadness and tragedy. Rightly so, in my opinion, both Roy and Rushdie clearly make an issue of the problem that the notion of “shame” plays in South Asia and how it all too often stands in the way of love.
The novel received overall positive reviews in the Western press. Time named it one of the best books of the year. It won the Mann Booker Prize in 1997. Funnily enough (in an ironic way because actually, it is far from funny), in India, the book was criticised in particular for its unrestrained description of sexuality. Indeed, E K Nayanar, the then Chief Minister of Kerala (Roy’s home state) obliged her to answer charges of obscenity!
[Indian | 1961– ]
Arundhati Roy is the author of The God of Small Things, which won the Booker Prize in 1997 and has been translated into more than forty languages. Roy has also published several works of non-fiction and is a widely respected human rights activist. Several of Roy’s works are set out below.
The Ministry of Utmost Happiness
As Alex Clark articulates, there is something Janus-faced about the way we fetishise the writing of fiction: Roy is at once seen to be participating in the “real world” but also as having abandoned – or been abandoned by – the creative muse that we imagine propels all artists. Her recent interview with the Guardian’s Decca Aitkenhead, in which she said: “To me, there is nothing higher than fiction. Nothing. It is fundamentally who I am. I am a teller of stories. For me, that’s the only way I can make sense of the world, with all the dance that it involves,” suggests that she would not agree with that binary worldview. And neither, indeed, does her second novel.
The Ministry of Utmost Happiness (2017) is, according to Alex Clark, “a curious beast.” There are many many characters, its written in an achronological way and while the style is somewhat haphazard, it has passages of breathtakingly composed and powerful prose: The idea that the personal is political and vice versa informs its every sentence. This novel of maddeningly frayed edges, wonky pacing and occasional longueurs. But its patchwork of narratives, painful, funny, sexy, violent, earthy, otherworldly, its recurring images of lost and recovered children, individual sacrifice and self-denial, and its depiction of the constant battle toward self-assertion in a society still held in thrall to the taxonomy of caste and class, make for a disturbing and memorable return to the land of make-believe.
An Atlas of Impossible Longing
According to Shirley Chew (2008), the novel is, “deftly and sensitively narrated.” According to Marie Arana (2011), “every once in a great while, a novel comes along to remind you why you rummage through shelves in the first place. Why you peck like a magpie past the bright glitter of publishers’ promises. Why you read.” Roy’s An Atlas of Impossible Longing is such a book, a novel to convince us that boldly drawn sagas with larger-than-life characters are still possible in a relentlessly postmodern world.
Spanning three generations of an Indian family from the turn of the 20th Century to India’s partition, An Atlas of Impossible Longing traces the intertwining lives of the inhabitants of a vast and isolated house on the outskirts of a small town in Bengal. One of the book’s main protagonists is a first-time novelist, is no one you’ve heard of, and yet she is also no stranger to books. She lives in the picturesque hill station of Ranikhet, in the distant Himalaya mountains, and commutes to New Delhi, where she works for an academic publisher that specializes in South Asia. It begins in 1907, when Amulya leaves Calcutta with his young wife, Kananbala, and travels to the backwater of Songarh to open a factory to manufacture herbal potions and perfumes. In time, they produce a son, who is a joy to them both, but the quiet cramp of small-town life becomes anathema to the lonely mother. She starts to evince strange symptoms, begins speaking out of turn and is given to obscene outbursts.
As months go by, it is clear she has gone mad.
The God of Small Things
Betrayal is a constant element in The God of Small Things. Love, ideals, and confidence are all forsaken, consciously and unconsciously, innocently and maliciously, and these deceptions affect all of the characters deeply. Read my review: The God of Small Things