12 November 2007

Great book, damme: All About H. Hatterr

Great! All About H. Hatterr by G.V. Desani is now in print again, thanks to that excellent publisher, New York Review of Books, the rescuer of another masterpiece (in its case, from crass simplification of the wonderful artwork), The Magic Pudding by Norman Lindsay.

But today is All About H. Hatterr's day. Even in India, this masterpiece has been hard to find and often out of print, though the Penguin 1999 edition is available there now. I think that one of the reasons this book sinks out of print so often is that it is so often lashed to others (which I wish, would just sink without a paper).

In my opinion, Desani stands up there with Gogol (who's at the top). This book is a true great — wise, while taking the piss out of the wise and the seekers of (see Lucy Edge's recently published Yoga School Dropout for a modern take on the search, which could be subtitled The search for male buns and chocolate cake, via yoga schools in India); hilariously specific (and as universal as foolishness and fakiry); fierce; acrobatic; and fun

As beggars go, I had been a hell of a lonely one. I did not know the technique of solitary meditation and I had failed to attract a disciple, a chap who might have served one, begged for one, scouted and worshipped one into the bargain: and for all that, for some paltry instruction in achieving whatever supernatural object the feller might have been seeking.

I decided to open a converse with the young recluse.

I put to him the token question.

'O too-early-in-life wearer of the honoured loin-cloth,' I asked, quo vadis like, 'whither goest?'

'Wherefore, fellow mendicant,' he replied gravely, 'thou speakest to a white-washed eagle whose surpassingly beautiful beak is mounted with gold-plate and studded with diamonds and pearls of the finest water?'

I recognised the jiggery-pokery style. If that young feller was a genuine holy man, worthy of worship and honour, I am John Bunyan (1628–1688) !

Indeed, the physique of Desani's voice is so magnificent that what he does with it is spoken of less that it should be. But he's got no equal, and I include that old flasher, Joyce (IMN-hO, Myles na gCopaleen comes close to Desani, and wipes the floor with Joyce.)

The thing about Desani is that his reach is unmatched but he isn't using words to dazzle; he went into US academia, but that was post-Hatterr. You can read this book with the joyous assurance that it isn't academic gold. The protagonist's language and learning (amazingly close to Desani's), which he picks up like a magpie but displays with the care of a bower bird, is a tool to get what he's saying across; and he has a lot to say, even to making fun of all of that. His reading is still typical of Indians, one of whom recently wrote an essay for me that mentioned Washington Irving's writings with such shocking familiarity that I had to read some WI. Irving was good!

For a real review of All About H. Hatterr, read Ben Ehrenreich in the LA Times.

NYRB has kindly supplied an excerpt of the book. Read it here.

Their edition is the 1970 revised version with the charming introduction by Anthony Burgess.

It deserves to be in hardback.

And speaking of greatness

The American Friends of James Joyce and The Modern Word run the annual James Joyce Essay Contest. Here's what they say:

Students were asked to prepare an essay that answered the following question:

Although he was born in the late nineteenth century, James Joyce is often named as the greatest writer of the twentieth century. In the coming years, what would a writer your age need to do to be considered as a candidate for the “greatest writer of the twenty-first century?” (In terms of themes, styles, innovations, etc.)

The reason I know about the contest is that a person I admire greatly placed third. Spencer Pate, someone I thought had too much sense to consider a question that is so shortsighted, silly and superficial, wrote an essay that was as sensible as anything I've ever seen of his (read more outstanding Spencer Pate essays and a story here).

Pate says, in part (read the whole essay here) :

In order to be considered as a candidate for the “greatest writer of the twenty-first century,” a writer my age would need to create his or her own distinctive style through rejecting postmodernism, studying the work of older writers, and making use of experimental techniques introduced by the likes of Joyce and Faulkner. Secondly, he or she would need to read in a wide variety of genres and not hesitate to make use of fantasy or speculative fiction elements in their work. Finally, a writer would have to be passionate about examining society and culture in order for his or her fiction to be truly great and relevant. A writer my age must take Joyce’s advice to heart and look for the universal in the specific and discover endless possibility in the mundane.

Speaking of the masters, he says:

Writers need to avoid the predominant styles in literature today and study the works of the true prose masters, like Dickens, Conrad, or Cormac McCarthy. Their rich, descriptive styles never go out of fashion.

Edward Bulwer Lytton Dickens (1852–1902) was the tenth and favourite child of Charles Dickens.

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