According to Majumdar, the novel of spectacular and dramatic events is uncharacteristic to the postcolonial experience. The two chapters on Wicomb and Chaudhuri relate their works historically, but also contain engaging theoretical discussions of an anthropological turn in literary studies and the canonization of master narratives in postcolonial fiction.
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Virginia Woolf too is deployed in this way, her own critical work drawn on throughout the introduction but with no attention paid to her literary role in this process. Rather unsurprisingly, Majumdar struggles to write across such contrasting and disparate geographical and historical locations: colonial Ireland and New Zealand, apartheid and post-apartheid South Africa, and postcolonial India.
However, banality becomes rather too broad and un-falsifiable for what is otherwise an impressively rigorous academic study. In a work of such sharp technical theorisation, this fluid and unspecific term is unsatisfying. It feels like Majumdar has attempted to marry two clearly inter-related but nevertheless distinct literary interests: modernism, in the form of Joyce and Mansfield but especially Joyce and postcolonialism.
They range from theorists of the black Atlantic to the subaltern historiographers from South Asia and Latin America. However, I read this archive of Anglophone fiction as existing in a greater continuity not only with the aesthetics of high modernism but also with some of the major cultural nodes of Enlightenment modernity, such as the rise of narrative realism and its preoccupation with the marginal details of quotidian life.
Though this body of literature originates at various points on the periphery of the British Empire, I would make the more conservative claim that their embeddedness in metropolitan aesthetics is central to their very production. These texts variously trace a complex legacy to the narratives of modernism and modernity in the European context, doubtless partly because they are written in English and partly because they make up a body of prose fiction, a genre directly traceable to the tradition of literary modernity that follows the European Enlightenment.
It goes without saying that this claim is specifically limited to this archive of literature; it is far from my intention to argue that the diverse range of Anglophone literatures in the world is overwhelmingly traceable to European cultural modernity.
Prose of the World - Modernism and the Banality of Empire
Moreover, this relationship varies widely within the body of fiction I read in this book Joyce and Mansfield, as modernists canonized within the metropolitan canon, demonstrate a closer relationship with traditions of this modernity than that evident in Wicomb and Chaudhuri. More importantly, none of their relations with the literary discourse of European modernity is one of simple, uncritical inheritance.
The colonial context of the global British Empire makes this relation one severely ridden with crisis and resistance, as postcolonial interlocutors of the canonized modernist Joyce, such as Andrew Gibson, Emer Nolan, and Enda Duffy, have ably demonstrated.
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My reading of modernist fiction, therefore, takes as its point of departure a position similar to that of John Marx, who has argued that the radical experimentation of the modernist novel simultaneously hinged on a decline in the imperial confidence of Britain and the increasingly globalized importance of English as a literary language.
The decline of Britain, according to Marx, accompanied the rise of English. Literary modernism thus not only signaled. Marxs argument about the literary globalization ushered in by modernist literature hinges on an undoing of the Victorian fantasy of a planet divided into core and periphery, home and colony in favor of a new dream of a decentred network of places and peoples described, analyzed, and managed by a cosmopolitan cast of English-speaking experts. This is made clear not only by the privileged cultural position of the metropolitan nations but also the heightened significance of select cities and even the artistic cultures of specific neighborhoods within them.
The phenomenon of global Anglophone literature, emergent within the historical context of the British Empire, has to a great degree retained similar structures of metropolis and periphery, as Pascale Casanova has argued in the larger context of world literature. Such models of the relation between metropolitan and peripheral spaces help to illustrate banality as symptomatic of a political condition within this global archive of fiction. The embodiment of the banal as a narrative instinct ironizes the binary of the metropolis and the periphery. It is an irony that echoes modernisms export of provincialism to the metropole that has been convincingly argued by Marx and other interlocutors of modernist metropolitanism.
Versions of the relationship between metropolitan and peripheral spaces have driven the biographical and imaginative movements of all four of these writers, leading them to spend most or much of their adult lives away from their places of birth and early years. Joyce carved out his literary vocation in different parts of continental Europe, which promised far greater cultural. Mansfield felt very much the same way about her native New Zealand, also emigrating to continental Europe and to England, where she was to gain an ambivalent status within the Bloomsbury circle.
Zo Wicomb left behind an apartheid-ridden South Africa to teach in Scotland, where she still lives, and the Indian-born Amit Chaudhuri has similarly carved out his reputation in the metropolitan centers of London and Oxford and has returned to live in India only after eighteen years in England. A culture of ceaseless travel, spatial disembodiment, temporary and permanent border crossings, alienation and homecomings have come to define the literature of the British Commonwealth following empire and decolonization, a field within which the erstwhile stable concept of British literature needs increasingly to be situated in order to be fully understood.
A field irrevocably marked by a complex range of cosmopolitanisms, the literature of the global British Empire has over the course of the twentieth century come to constitute probably the most significant archive for what Pascale Casanova has called the world republic of letters.
However, what is especially intriguing about the four writers in my archive is that though they move in person toward metropolitan spaces, their fiction is mostly preoccupied with the locations they leave behind. Dublin occupies almost all of Joyces oeuvre; Cape Town and Namaqualand and Calcutta and Bombay constitute, for the most part, the respective fictional contexts for Wicomb and Chaudhuri.
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- Prose of the World: Modernism and the Banality of Empire -- Saikat Majumdar.
The banality of life in places left far behind, in all four of these writers, hinges on a complex interplay of memory, the aesthetics of an eclectic ethnography, and, probably most importantly, the sobering distance from their subjects gained by the fractured sensibility of the exiled writer. It is almost as if all four had to detach themselves physically from the spatial context of their subjects for an immersion in what Emerson has called the common, the familiar, the low within the culture they left behind.
Rather, this cosmopolitanism is to be found in the constant negotiation of the alien and the homegrown in the liminal sensibility with which they describe the culture that they inherited by birth. Their ethnographic description of the ordinary as well as their anticathartic celebration of the banal in the colonial periphery emerges as a covert critique of the relation of the metropolitan and the peripheral as it has evolved within the global history of empire. The historical reality of this relation creates realms of possibility and fulfillment beyond the reach of the immediate, which invests the banality of local life with a subtle narrative energy.
The intricate web of desire, pleasure, and consumption through which banality and boredom emerge as aesthetic motifs in this literature reveals a relation between the metropolis and the periphery that is both materially structured and ideologically inflected. The depiction of banality and monotony through the troubled cosmopolitanism of the diasporic literary sensibility, however, is deeply ironic.
Severe impediments to mobility generate an oppressive sense of boredom and banality for a vast number of subjects living in the impoverished peripheries of capitalism. In glaring contrast to the privilege of mobility that shapes the worldview of the cosmopolitan artist, these subjects live with no choice to move or travel beyond their immediate space, no freedom to lead a lifestyle of their own choosing.
The embodiments of such constriction are widely varied, from Joyces paralyzed Dubliners, to Mansfields confined upper-middle-class women in settler society, to the poor creolized inhabitants of rural Namaqualand in Wicombs fiction. Severe constrictions on mobility and lifestyle practices produce the overarching aesthetic of banality and boredom, something which the biographical and imaginative movement of the cosmopolitan traveler and writer insistently seeks to escape.
An overwhelming sense of the banality of ones life is a damning marker of economic and ideological subordination. Jamaica Kincaid provides a moving example of the afflictions of banality and boredom in peripheral locations in her polemical personal essay, A Small Place. At the heart of this affliction is the cultural and material politics of tourism.
Prose of the World | Columbia University Press
The question here is who can and who cannot travel. Those who cannot are unable to transcend the banality of their daily existence and can only hate the tourists who turn that very banality into their pleasure. Kincaids insight into this hatred is poetic:. For every native of every place is a potential tourist, and every tourist a native of somewhere. Every native everywhere lives a life of overwhelming and crushing banality and boredom and desperation and depression, and every deed, good and bad, is an attempt to forget this. Every native would like to find a way out, every native would like a rest, every native would like a tour.
But some nativesmost natives in the worldcannot go anywhere.
They are too poor. They are too poor to go anywhere.