A writer speaks

Why don’t we have more novels about art?

Writer Anjum Hasan offers the literary provenance of her latest novel, ‘The Cosmopolitans’.

When I set out to write my just-published novel, The Cosmopolitans, which is among other things an attempt at a conversation about art, I tried to reach back in memory to art-driven novels I had read. Michael Frayn’s Headlong was one that immediately came to mind. (A couple of weeks ago, a reviewer flatteringly compared the novel to Somerset Maugham’s The Moon and The Sixpence, based on the life of Paul Gauguin. I only realised then that I had read it as a teenager and over time mostly forgotten it or replaced it in my head with what I later learnt about Gauguin’s real life.)

I enjoyed Headlong for how Frayn drew out a rollicking comedy from the dreary English countryside, and for his coolly serious appreciation of the art of Pieter Bruegel, the 16th century Dutch zeitgeist, and the hidden meanings that paintings can have. But what was most admirable about Headlong was also the very thing that disconcerted – the absolute certainty, at the back of your mind, that you have access to a great tradition of art, which you can dive into headlong to come up with whichever sliver you want to thread into your fiction.

Frayn’s immersion in the culture he was writing about was what powered the novel. But what if something happened – and there is certainly a lot in that rupturing sense “happening” in the contemporary West – to make a writer start to probe that easeful relationship? I wanted to read the Western novel about art, literature or music that asked the question – is this all really mine? And what the heck does it have to do with life? Perhaps only JM Coetzee’s Disgrace comes close in recent times – the teacher of great literature whose life and world are caving in as he dreams of writing an opera on Byron.

I hadn’t really come across novels here that asked similar questions of art either, Amit Chaudhuri’s The Immortals and Shanta Gokhale’s Crowfall perhaps being exceptions.

But then neither were Indian writers, particularly in English, working with an axiomatic belief in the worth of our timeless traditions. The ambivalent if not tortured relationship of the English-speaking Indian to what is purportedly his or her own culture – exemplified in so many novels from The Strange Case of Billy Biswas  to English, August via Midnight’s Children – concerns us more. I found myself seized by this bug too, and at least a part of my novel goes into the hinterland, where Indian culture apparently survives unsullied, to explore what it looks like to the cosmopolitan.

I was well into the writing when I came across V. Sanjay Kumar’s Artist, Undone and was immediately taken in. Here for the first time, it seemed to me, was a novelist writing about modern Indian visual art without (to use airline parlance) baggage – not in order to score a cultural point, or even claim ownership, but just as something to stare at and, occasionally, identify with.

The novel starts with the somewhat desperate protagonist buying a painting called Fat, Fucked and Forty, which he is sure refers to him. This is an actual acrylic on canvas by artist Nataraj Sharma and throughout the novel are reproductions of existing work by Indian and Western artists. Artist, Undone has its heavy-handed moments but it was still to me a greatly funny novel and one that showed how it’s possible for art to be ordinary, in the best sense of that term. I don’t know if I derived specific inspiration from Artist, Undone, but I certainly felt reassured reading it.

When I told a friend I was writing fiction about art, she thoughtfully pulled out two novels from her library: John Updike’s Seek My Face and Siri Hustvedt’s What I Loved, and I felt suitably stunted. Updike’s novel particularly interested me for he was an art critic too.

But a few pages in and I was feeling again like that eavesdropper listening in on a secret conversation about Western art in which all the fundamentals have been agreed on long ago – in this case modern American art from the paint-splattering Abstract Expressionist Jackson Pollock onwards.

The novel is led by a character based on Pollock’s wife, Lee Krasner, also an artist, and now an elderly widow being interviewed for her memories of her heydays. It’s not just that you have to be in the know to decode this roman-a-clef but also that it comfortably assumes, again, that old mythology around Western art. Hustvedt’s novel is set in Soho of the 1970s and features a greatly cosy outlook on art too but there is greater human interest in this story.

So I’m probably skating on thin ice but I reassure myself by thinking that art is not my only subject. The Cosmopolitans is about how an artwork looks in a gallery but also how it looks set up against everything else – crime, violence, inequality and, most of all, the question of what defines the present moment.

Anjum Hasan’s latest novel, The Cosmopolitans, was published in August 2015.

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