I, Too, Am John Clare

Becoming a different kind of postcolonial writer

Amit Chaudhuri

John Clare, the English Romantic poet, was lost without success, but with it, he found himself beholden to benefactors, argues Amit Chaudhuri. Wikimedia Commons

In the last four years I have been rereading, repeatedly, two pieces of criticism, one by a poet and the other by a novelist who wrote novels that, in a diary entry in 1925, she felt shouldn’t be called novels. The first is Tom Paulin’s essay “John Clare in Babylon,” and the second is a short book that might also count as a long essay, Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own.

I read Paulin’s essay in his collection Minotaur: Poetry and the Nation State, six years after it first appeared in The Times Literary Supplement in 1986. I was living in Oxford and writing up my DPhil on D. H. Lawrence’s poetry—a DPhil I was on the verge of abandoning as I felt that it would be the only honorable course of action for a young writer who had been using it as a sinecure.

By then, Paulin was well known in Britain because of his weekly television appearances on the Late Show. This was an arts review program on which, alongside participants such as Germaine Greer, he was memorable and provocative for the acute and—to some—belligerent way in which he discussed the topics on that week’s list, whether it was a Hollywood film, a documentary on brutalism, or a new novel by Julian Barnes. Somewhat unconnected to these TV appearances, Minotaur revealed to me that a critic could be politi­cal without compromising the centrality of the poem or losing the shock of aesthetic urgency. I recall Paulin saying somewhere that writing a poem about politics wasn’t intrinsically different from writing one about an apple or taking a walk. By this he meant not to level out the political poem but to open up our idea of how pol­itics and poetry work; markers, or themes, are in themselves not reliable indicators of the political any more than they are, as Jorge Luis Borges pointed out in “The Argentine Writer and Tradition,” of ethnicity or culture. (“Gibbon observes that in the Arabian book par excellence, in the Koran, there are no camels; I believe if there were any doubt as to the authenticity of the Koran, this absence of camels would be sufficient to prove it is an Arabian work. It was written by Mohammed, and Mohammed, as an Arab, had no reason to know that camels were especially Arabian.” That there are camels in the Koran doesn’t take away from the kind of critical thinking Borges is pointing toward.)

Paulin’s engagement with the unexpectedness of poetic lan­guage and the ways in which this unexpectedness is crucial to an experience that’s nontranscendental, outside the bounds of the conventional parameters of “art,” and therefore, arguably, also political made him quite different from the followers of Edward Said (one of Paulin’s great champions, as it happens). Their prob­ing of the workings of imperial power through representation—or misrepresentation—and their interest in the “new” postcolonial cultures of Empire seemed necessarily more attuned to scrutiniz­ing or celebrating representational or narrative forms like the novel and less so non-narrative poetic projects. Sometimes, in these constituencies, it seemed as if poetry had never happened. At that time, Paulin’s unique practice as a poet-critic enmeshed in English literature and Irish politics was instructive, even life-giving.

I also liked Paulin’s view of English literary history as a fractured one, at once damaged, animated, and energized by its ongoing inter­nal tensions. John Clare, whose poetry was briefly a center of atten­tion in his lifetime for being rooted in the landscape he grew up in, is, for Paulin, a migrant displaced by the Enclosure Acts and, though he doesn’t use the term, a subaltern. It’s from this place—the grad­ual erosion of Clare’s sense of habitation, the complexity of national history—that the poetry emerges. This account of Clare was a relief for me; it made clearer the strangely constricting nature of the margin-center paradigm of postcolonial theory, where the imperial power is always the center, the colonized outpost the margin, these categories producing their own predetermined vocabularies. For me, Paulin’s essay put one internally riven history and poetics, England’s, in conversation with another, say, Hindustan’s, Ireland’s, or Bengal’s. At Oxford, I did not think of myself as someone who had arrived from the margins to study writers who were canonical at a “center” but as the product of a conflicted history that gave me my own van­tage point on England’s past. Paulin’s essay made me more aware of the conversation my history made me part of.

Last year, I asked my literary agent to instruct my U.K. publisher not to enter my eighth novel, Sojourn, for the Booker Prize.

In April 1992, two reviews appeared of Ted Hughes’s ambi­tious study, Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being. In The Sunday Times, John Carey, Merton Professor of English at Oxford, Renaissance scholar, destroyed the book for its tortuous excesses of style and thinking. Although a champion of Arnold Bennett and robust defender of working-class taste, as well as being strategi­cally anti-intellectual and fervently anti-modernist, Carey, in his review, exhibited a professorial impatience with bad writing and tenuous thinking. Paulin’s essay, which appeared around the same time in the London Review of Books, located Hughes’s excesses in style and argumentation—his “puritan theatricality,” Paulin called it, adding that “the term is not self-contradictory”—in what can only be called an English experience of “difference.” This was the repressed haunting of Catholicism in Protestant self-invention that Hughes believed to inflect and vitalize Shakespeare’s poetry. Once you cease—as Paulin and Paulin’s Hughes do—to accept the more conventional definitions of English self-consciousness, you must be led to a poetics of difference that has to exist independently of a rubric of color, Empire, and migration but not independently of history. This, to me, was a liberating possibility—truer to the diffi­culties with which we uncover who we are.

i wrote two novels before I finished my doctorate. The novels contained who I would become—a writer of the everyday, differ­ent from the writer of great themes I thought I’d be when I was an apprentice. The DPhil, on the other hand, represented my encoun­ter with the limits of my being; it involved an engagement with Lawrence’s uneven, overblown, hit-and-miss style post–Sons and Lovers, which I found anathema as a writer but spiritually tantaliz­ing, because it contained Lawrence’s living historicality. As a nov­elist, though, I was preoccupied with turning a narrative form into a non-narrative one, because the non-narrative mode had become, for me, the one way of accessing reality.

At the same time I was aware that “reality” itself was under attack from the theory that was beginning to circulate in English departments. In my DPhil, I reached for that theory as I examined the limits of my being, my aesthetic. Some of the people who came to know my fiction could not connect it to my doctoral work. For a long time, the latter remained unknown or unacknowledged, even more so, maybe, than the musician and vocalist in me did. One way of rationalizing my proclivities might have been to professionalize them: to be, like David Lodge, a realist novelist who had also, in an academic capacity, edited very useful books on critical theory. Yet this orderly rationalization doesn’t capture the incalculability of the sort of writer-critic some of us end up as. There’s too much leakage and subterfuge between our projects.

One thing I mean by “leakage and subterfuge” is an increasing complexity. I wrote and continue to write criticism in a register that is unavailable to me in academia. The criticism also comes from an undercurrent of knowing that there’s very little place in the acad­emy for a writer like me. Having a job in academia doesn’t change this dynamic.

i revisited paulin’s essay after almost three decades to introduce it to my students for a seminar. The pandemic began midway through term, only the latest symptom of what it meant to live in a globalized world that had come into being roughly three years before Minotaur was published, with the fall of the Berlin Wall, and two years before my first novel, A Strange and Sublime Address, came out. The fall of the Wall was an eventuality no one believed would occur. Returning to Paulin’s essay, I discovered it contains a premonition of what it would mean to live in the new world of precarity we are now in (the only one my students know). “John Clare in Babylon” is a record of the anguish and humiliation of the contemporary writer. Paulin is writing the essay as an enthusiast of Clare’s poetry, but he’s also writing it as an Irishman who finds himself taking on the role of commentator in the cultural heart of Thatcher’s Britain. The anguish this causes—the anguish of being a writer in this new world—is something I hadn’t fully sensed in the essay when I’d first read and admired it.

“The social forces that were to lift Clare up and then destroy him,” says Paulin, “are prefigured in that flattered sense of alienation he describes after the publication of his first book, Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery.” Paulin continues:

Writing to his friend Octavius Gilchrist on 21 January 1820, Clare includes an “Address to a Copy of ‘Clares Poems’ Sent O. Gilchrist Esqr”—a piece of light verse in which he imag­ines Poems Descriptive being given a gold-tooled binding. The actual volume is “plain & simple” like its author, but the “gilded coat” it may receive will elevate it beyond Clare’s social position, rather like an upwardly mobile son leaving his illiterate labour­ing father behind. Clare’s father, like his mother and his wife, was illiterate, but the literate Clare is recognising here that he is just as trapped as they are.

“Flattered sense of alienation” is a rephrasing of the term “rec­ognition,” addressing the new registers it has acquired by 1986. Although Paulin is writing this three years before globaliza­tion has its formal inception, he is seven years into Thatcher’s Britain, during which time trade unions are being dismantled and Thatcher’s policy of celebratory rhetoric accompanied by cuts in public spending (including spending on the arts) is becoming nor­mality. Writers and academics at the time make fun of, and critique, Thatcher, but they—especially writers, with academics to fol­low—fall quickly in line with her ethos and look to benefit from it. “Flattered sense of alienation” replaces both the literary and social connotations of “recognition” as well as the more personal ones of impostor syndrome. The phrase gestures to the fact that a certain kind of fame, or success, under this new dispensation brings with it a diminishing of agency. I don’t think Paulin could have come up with this phrase for Clare had it not been for the immediate context of Thatcher’s Britain and his position within it. And this kind of detail (to do with the author’s conflicted feelings on publi­cation) was generally irrelevant in literary histories of romanticism and modernism: inspiringly so, because the creative act itself was seen as anomalous and polemical in these periods—so at odds with conventional notions of success, so proximate to failure, that we’re uninterested in what William Wordsworth felt about his books as physical objects, or how they were sold. Clare, by contrast, is not a natural legatee of the literary: he is flustered by, and envious of, the volume of poems he’s produced, and is competing with, and would be outshone by, the “coat of gold” it might acquire: “the fruit of his labour disowns him, and he exists only as a type of abject advertisement for a commodity labelled Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery.

I do not write of nation or migrancy or Empire; I am not interested in that deep embodiment of my culture, story.

Paulin is drawing our attention to this because he’s in a com­parable position. I noticed this about the essay only after having experienced over three decades what it means to be a writer—an “Indian writer in English,” a “postcolonial writer”—in the age of the free market. Without success, we are lost, as Clare was, and with it, we are humiliated because of the volition we increasingly surrender to those we often have little respect for. Paulin reminds us of how Clare supplicated to his patrons: “I am Respected Sir Your Gratful Servant John Clare,” and, in the “opening sentence of Clare’s first extant letter”: “I send you some of the principal Subscribers which I have procured lately: the first of which is a Baronet!!!” “[T]hose stunned exclamation marks,” says Paulin, “point to the spiked trap Clare fell into—his success set him apart from his own community, while the system of patronage and publishing which created him could offer nothing but a fitfully marketable public image.” I see the exclamation marks as notations of disbelief, excitement, and bemusement. Today, this could be a Facebook post, in that one doesn’t even have to be successful in order to perform success. I see the essay as Paulin’s acknowledgment of the possibility of becom­ing Clare in Thatcher’s bubble and also as an attempt at recover­ing, through Clare’s poems, a sense of integrity and of literature’s receding or lost potential. Coterminous with Britain and, a few years later, with the disintegration of the socialist bloc, the bubble becomes the West and all the elite neighborhoods of the globalized world. I find that I too am Clare, as perhaps all writers now discover they are while arriving at literary festivals and book signings and creative writing classes. We are products of a new displacement; we are not natural legatees of literature. We have regard neither for our hosts, ourselves, nor our cravings. We let others set the terms.

this brings me to woolf. The word outsider once had a certain glamour to it, because it suggested that the outsider had chosen to remove themselves from the center of things. The word is less meaningful today because globalization has no periphery: to be outside it means not to exist. We are busy proving we exist; our existence is our capital—this fact levels out those who are famous and those who perform fame.

Well before globalization, Woolf’s long essay is an attempt to create a vocabulary to describe exclusion, which is thrust upon us, and outsideness, which we sometimes desire. Of course, Woolf can hardly be accused of being an outsider to inherited privilege, and the prejudices that arise from her position have alienated, for instance, Paulin and others. To the latter, she probably belongs among the descendants of a class of patrons that were entertained, and then bored, by Clare. But she’s also situated in a group of class outsiders that includes her husband, Leonard; her sister, Vanessa Bell; her brother-in-law, Clive Bell; the artists Duncan Grant and Roger Fry: the so-called Bloomsbury Set. She’s an insider among privileged outsiders. As a woman, though, she is excluded from certain territories that the male members of this set would have the freedom to access and, if necessary, reject. Woolf can’t reject Oxbridge, because she has already been preemptively denied entry into its spaces. One of the most important elements of liberty is the freedom to not participate. The act of rejection is unavailable to Woolf in several spheres because of her gender, and to Clare in a post-Enclosure world because the terms that define his place in it have been put in place by others. When Clare is reduced to a kind of pretense—of being a “gratful supplicant”—his tone exudes precarity and fragility because he knows that giving up, or falling from, the position of supplicant is not up to him. Paulin’s Clare and Virginia Woolf both conceive of the freedom to reject in spatial terms: for Clare, it’s the pre-Enclosure field, which Paulin claims continues to exist in Thatcher’s Britain only in “the village of Laxton in Nottighamshire, the last surviving example of the feu­dal open-field system. . .a free, almost floating environment”; for Woolf, it’s the notion of a “room of one’s own.” A “room of one’s own” is not only a location to write in; it is the ability to create one’s own terms. The denial of this possibility for Woolf, as a woman writer, and for Clare, as a writer who emerged from an agrarian past, prefigures the world we live in after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Last year, I asked my literary agent to instruct my U.K. pub­lisher not to enter my eighth novel, Sojourn, for the Booker Prize. I already knew that, given the constraints on publishers to do with submissions, it was unlikely it would be entered. And it was unlikely to be entered because, given its extreme brevity, apparent plotlessness, and lack of recognizable national or global character­istics, it was nothing like a Booker novel, whatever that might be. The process of submissions is shrouded in secrecy: we don’t know on what basis publishers nominate books for consideration, which ones and how many they nominate, and by what means the num­ber of nominations per publisher is decided. The idea that this is a prize whose workings are comprehensible doesn’t hold; in most other spheres, such opaqueness would be deeply worrying. On top of that, the prize militates against the sort of absorption that literature deserves: judges need to finish hundreds of novels in a limited period of time. Would I reject the prize if I got it? I don’t know. But I certainly want the freedom to not be encroached upon by it. Let the Booker do what it wants as long as I can do what I want to. Over the years, I have been concerned that this freedom is being taken away from me. People assume that all Anglophone novelists begin thinking about the Booker once their book has been published, or even before it has. This is not because writers think the Booker is a useful arbiter of value: they know it isn’t. It’s because it’s now the publishing industry’s main PR instrument, if a somewhat jaded and obviously cynical one. To be ignored is to be seen to be excluded, which increasingly takes away our right to ignore—far more important than the matter of winning or losing, given that the terms, otherwise, begin to be created not by writers but by others. To instruct my publisher to not enter the novel for the prize was to take possession of those terms myself: to create a small space, a “room of one’s own.”

I began to think again of a scene that had startled and moved me when I had first encountered it on the third page of my edi­tion of Woolf’s book: she is being silently admonished, through gesture, by a Beadle—in contemporary Oxbridge parlance, a “por­ter”—for walking on the grass in a Cambridge college. The reason for my thinking of this scene was my sense, over thirty years, of not being read by the postcolonial academy. I wanted to revisit the measures that Woolf had taken in writing about being “kept out.” Although all non-members of Cambridge colleges are prohibited from stepping on their patches of green, Woolf takes the Beadle’s agitation to be caused by her gender: “he was a Beadle; I was a woman. This was the turf; there was the path.” The confession, “I was a woman,” is an extraordinary example of self-realization to do with occupying both a “natural” category and a historical moment. Although women could be students at Oxbridge at the time, they had only begun to be granted degrees in Oxford that decade, and not yet in Cambridge, and women’s colleges were still to receive full recognition from these universities. None of this is mentioned by Woolf, but its absurdity informs, and is offset by, the deliberate tranquility of her response to the encounter that follows shortly:

. . . but here I was actually at the door which leads into the library itself. I must have opened it, for instantly there issued, like a guardian angel barring the way with a flutter of black gown instead of white wings, a deprecating, silvery, kindly gentleman, who regretted in a low voice as he waved me back that ladies are only admitted to the library if accompanied by a Fellow of the College or furnished with a letter of introduction.

That a famous library has been cursed by a woman is of complete indifference to a famous library. Venerable and calm, with all its treasures safe locked within its breast, it sleeps com­placently and will, so far as I am concerned, so sleep for ever. Never will I wake those echoes, never will I ask for that hospi­tality again, I vowed as I descended the steps in anger.

I’m struck by the phrasing’s evocation of momentariness (“instantly there issued”) and the doubts it casts on intentionality (“I must have opened it”—that is, the door to the library). The passage speculates about the nature of the encounter and how it might be captured. Events are not products of the will: “I must have opened it” rather than “I had opened it.” These counterarguments against narrative convention do not diminish the polemic against the sys­tem that’s “barring [her] way,” but the polemic cohabits, from sentence to sentence, with a restive attack on block-by-block argu­mentation. This attack amplifies the rationality of Woolf’s position. It’s the deadness of building-block thinking that Woolf is trying, once again, to escape (as in Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse).

My reason for revisiting her book and these sections in partic­ular in 2021 had to do with my own relationship with the academy after three decades as a published writer. I had been in the academy since 2006, ever since I had taken up a position at the University of East Anglia, as Professor of Contemporary Literature. I was that curious Clare-like figure for our age, the teacher of creative writ­ing: a person who ostensibly does nothing but who once wrote something, and now, according to already-determined prescrip­tions, must carry out the role of “writer” for the benefit of oth­ers. But I had also been out of the academy for as long as I could remember. Literary studies had become, for one like me, more or less synonymous with postcolonial studies not long after I’d pub­lished my first novel at the start of the 1990s. My place had been assigned to its margins: no academic position I held could alter that. I do not write of nation or migrancy or Empire; I am not interested in that deep embodiment of my culture, story. Woolf had stood outside the library; possibly, some of her novels were stored inside, invisibly. She too was in the academy, in that sense, even as she was kept from entering; at least for some writers, this paradox has very specific permutations. Each person, as K noted at the end of Franz Kafka’s The Trial, has a Beadle, meant only for them. For K, standing at the doorway is fate.

Am I commercially successful in the West as an “Indian writer”? I don’t think so: because my works have no theme.

When I finished my first short novel, A Strange and Sublime Address, I had to wait for two years for a publisher, mainly because of the work’s unusual length, the absence of story and of the sort of theme—such as Partition or migration—that was then becoming characteristic of the post-Rushdie novel, and the challenge all this would have posed to marketing. The lack of story was pointed out by reviewers: I had been unaware of it myself. I had meant to write a longer novel; its slimness was not aimed for—that’s the shape the book took after revision. One doesn’t choose or fashion one’s fate any more than one does one’s gender or the kind of work one produces.

In an inversion of consulting a horoscope to see if my book would ever be published, or if anyone would read it, I began a compulsive, guilty investigation into the present and past circum­stances of short novels. I found that on the shelves of Blackwell’s Bookshop in Oxford the only short novels were by women or by Europeans: Jean Rhys, Muriel Spark, Leonardo Sciascia, Peter Handke. So started a form of research that still reveals new off­shoots and hasn’t quite exhausted itself. Woolf had been con­ducting similar research for reasons of her own: “The book has somehow to be adapted to the body, and at a venture one would say that women’s books should be shorter, more concentrated, than those of men, and framed so that they do not need long hours of steady and uninterrupted work.”

Other investigations and speculations arose from not only my experiences of exclusion but the unexpected exclusion, in the 1990s, of certain practices and lineages: for instance, the with­drawal, with globalization, of non-Anglophone literary traditions and their wayward projects. At exactly which point did poetic, nonrepresentational forms become invalid? Neither the academy nor the retail outlet had much use for them anymore. When had these forms arisen; when do they usually arise? As I found myself in a moment of discontinuity in the late 1980s and early 1990s, I found I could take neither the existence of these forms nor their histories as givens.

Over these three decades of standing outside the building, other idle thoughts have occurred to me. Why has philosophy played such a minor role in the humanities in modern India? Would things have been different for literary studies had other intellectual disciplines outside the social sciences been disciplines of prestige in the twentieth century? Would it have been difficult for a single interpretative apparatus, postcolonial theory, to dominate it in the period that was coterminous with my life as a published writer? What had happened to phenomenology? I refer to this movement only to create a break in a habit of thinking for which it simply doesn’t exist. Is the absence of engagement with phenomenology in India the reason that Indian intellectuals, especially Anglophone ones, never talk about space or the weather in the context of thought, perception, or intellectual history, unless, of course, the Indian intellectual is faced with the destruction of earthly being through global warming? How can we agitate over a catastrophe to do with the imminent end of something—our tenure on earth, and earth’s own tenure—without hardly ever having situated our agita­tion outside a necessary instrumentality (the overriding necessity for us and the earth to exist)? Can’t we, at least occasionally, also place this discussion in the beauty and the lack of necessity of our being here—the interconnected contingency and superfluity and passionate truth of our existence? This convergence of superfluity and truth has been explored by our literatures and arts—by cinema and painting—but the academy has little space anymore for such eccentric ruminations. The academy no longer knows how to speak of the weather in its ordinariness; it can only invoke it in terms of rescue. These ruminations on everyday weather are essentially secular; to be removed from them is also to be left with a narrow formulation of the secular within the academy.

Phenomenology is only one word for the critical impetus I’m referring to. The early twentieth-century turn toward it in phi­losophy happened, I think, because of a preceding turn in the arts—toward space, which is nonrepresentational—away from Enlightenment realism. Woolf is part of this turn. She is preoc­cupied with the fullness of absence—with the railway-carriage companion, or the self, or the thought, or the history, that is most present when not fully available. Her perspective isn’t sui generis; it’s the consequence of a recovery by the Bloomsbury Set and oth­ers of nonrepresentational lineages in different parts of the world—India, Africa, Japan, China, the Middle East—that had been put into circulation in Europe from the eighteenth century onwards. This movement in thinking occurs definitively in India too at that time. For instance, the rejection of neoclassical masterfulness by a group of Bengali moderns creates a new sense of space and new textures and surfaces in nineteenth-century Bengal, whether it informs an experiment like Tagore’s university, Visva-Bharati, or the interiors of middle-class Bengali homes. These indeterminate spaces have, of course, largely gone from our homes, from the pub­lic domain, and from within the academy.

various kinds of exclusion mark the experience of writers with globalization. Dubravka Ugrešić, who died on March 17 last year, was born in 1949 in Yugoslavia and worked within the constraints of being a Yugoslav writer, believing, all the time, that the West was where literature was happening. When the Wall fell, she found, before long, that she had become a Croatian writer and also, through her visits to parts of Europe inaccessible to her before, that the West had forgotten about literature. If the notion of literature had been a home for her, it no longer, at this point in history, had a location. We have, with our entry via globalization into the “free world,” become, in some ways, less free. This is what Clare, too, discovered when he entered the post-Enclosure era and came into contact with his urbane, entitled readership. “When freedom is the only reality, you’re no longer free,” says a character in my novel Sojourn, as he and his lunchtime companion discuss their experience of Berlin, to which they have moved temporarily in the early 2000s. I can’t say I know precisely what he means, but his words resonate with me. The receding of freedom in this time also characterizes the academy, the humanities, literary studies, and the proliferation of creative writing departments; if we seldom speak about this reced­ing, it’s because we don’t feel free to do so. The only way for me to discover a space that’s equivalent to Laxton in Nottinghamshire, or to a room of one’s own, is by confronting the limits of what I know; and what I know is the world I’m in at the time of globalization.

You’ll say: “But, as a writer, you clearly exist. We see and rec­ognize you.” I’ll answer this bluntly. The postcolonial academy is a transnational entity with a more or less uniform code of entry, and it’s unlikely that someone whose work has been kept out from it in New York will find a different point of entry into it in Burdwan: there are few local postcolonial worldviews. If you’re out of that domain in one location, you’re out of it in another. I don’t speculate what would have happened to my writing had it been embraced by the academy—that kind of straining of the imagination isn’t of interest to me. To speak crassly, I’m not dependent on the postco­lonial academy or on literary studies. I have—with sadness, pride, and acceptance—made some sort of a literary reputation in the West. And the politics followed by the academy means it will grant me this existence even as it remains disengaged with my work. Am I commercially successful in the West as an “Indian writer”? I don’t think so: because my works have no theme. Both the global academy and global publishing propagate and disseminate themes; they shop for novels in the aftermath of deciding what the valid themes are. I know this from experience of marketing decisions and the dinnertime conversations that follow academic talks. In my case, I have had to depend on being noticed, again and again from 1991, by the few not entirely tied down to the search for theme and who, at the same time, have a critical voice. Unlike cinema or art, which, in our epoch, still have fraught but effective festival circuits that promote the artistic and cinematic very differently from the mainstream, the novel has no alternative support structure. I have to guess at the sources of support which my work has survived on so far; they include prizes, reviews, and readers but don’t add up, as yet, to a coherent vision of the literary. I have to guess at why I’m visible to you. One reason might be mistaken identity: you see that my books are published and reviewed in the West, and you believe I’m a commercially successful writer.

In a world in which all writers, to some extent, have to be John Clare, the importance, and the means, of putting one’s terms in place takes a lifetime to learn. One of my modes of translat­ing exclusion into outsideness is my inadvertent resolve to never become eligible for permanent residency or citizenship in the U.K., which is where I first made a literary reputation. India, then, is my “outside”: my room. Conscious resolve is what leads to passports, visas, and citizenship; inadvertent resolve is important because it finds a way around these.

as i go back to A Room of One’s Own, I find Woolf worrying about her inability to adhere to conscious intention, to provide “the nug­get of pure truth” she’s been invited to share with her audience. This fretting is not unaccompanied by an exuberance at the creation of something else. “But what bearing has all this upon the subject of my paper, Women and Fiction? I asked, going indoors,” she says at the end of Chapter 2. This contains as much disquiet as it does the sense of already being on the brink of something. She hasn’t made much headway with the subject she’s been asked to speak about at “Fernham.” Fernham is her portmanteau coinage from the names of the two colleges she was invited by, Newnham and Girton. It is also her attempt to outdo the name of that imaginary location, Oxbridge. In the midst of her mild panic and frustration, the talks or chapters unfold primarily as an exploration of method. Geoff Dyer’s record of a similar panic and exuberance at not being able to write his book on Lawrence, leading to his inquiry into method, Out of Sheer Rage, must owe something to Woolf’s inability to stick to a plan; his own coinage for Oxford, “Dullford,” where he spends an unproductive period trying to research Lawrence, is also some sort of unlikely homage to the anti-academy Woolf: “Dullford,” compared to which “Fernham” is less direct but no less pointed.

Woolf wants, through suggestion, to give us an inkling of where the discourse gives way.

Women exist in extraordinary variety in literature written by men, Woolf discovers, but their counterparts don’t exist in the his­tory books that men such as G. M. Trevelyan write. She is appalled by the elisions and drawbacks of these histories; at the same time, she’s deeply suspicious of the historical method itself, with its focus on events, rubrics, and themes, all of which can be found under headings in the index. Woolf sees “woman” not just as an absence from history but as a counterpoint to the historical method as we understand it. As an imaginative writer, at odds with realism, she’s deeply committed to this counterpoint; the absent woman is one of her principal starting points—but not her only starting point—for an investigation into what pursuing it involves.

Woolf’s main interest in A Room of One’s Own is in confronting the limits of thought: the historical-realist understanding, which in our times takes on a new manifestation—I’m hesitating to use “reifies”—as globalization becomes all we know of the world and history. She cannot stop being a woman; she cannot stop being the kind of writer she is. And so she’s addressing women, men, writ­ers, and readers. The target in a single sentence can vary from the social and cultural to the foundational: “I need not say that what I am about to describe has no existence; Oxbridge is an invention; so is Fernham; ‘I’ is only a convenient term for somebody who has no real being.” She does not simply want a correction, as, say, decolonization offers us: she wants, through suggestion, to give us an inkling of where the discourse gives way. Corrective histo­ries of women are important, but they can lead to a replication of the forms of understanding which her sensibility is antithetical to. Woolf’s suggestions to do with the limits of understanding take the form of exhortations: “Young women. . . . You have never made a discovery of any sort of importance. . . . The plays of Shakespeare are not by you, and you have never introduced a barbarous race to the blessings of civilization.” Or the counterpoint comes in the form of Shakespeare’s sister Judith, “this poet who never wrote a word and is buried at the cross-roads.” Judith is not an imaginary or a lost figure; the problem implicit in our modes of understand­ing is only partly addressed by our recovering her. “Do not look for her,” Woolf says. She is presented to us only partly as a possibility of extending what we know, more, given Woolf’s narrative experi­ments, as a testing of our habits of knowing. These moments shock us into an awareness of an outside to our thought.

The observations I make here too are not, principally, cor­rective in their ambition. I wish to come into some kind of con­tact—through this “queer, composite being,” this absence, the writer—with the limits of what we know today. That moment of contact, for me, is a starting point for criticism.

Amit Chaudhuri is a novelist, poet, critic, essayist, and musician. His nonfiction book Finding the Raga won the James Tait Black Prize for Biography, and his most recent novel is Sojourn.
Originally published:
June 10, 2024


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