Malgudi

Anita Desai

  • Talkative Man by R.K. Narayan
    Heinemann, 119 pp, £7.95, September 1986, ISBN 0 434 49616 2

Narayan has written a postscript to his new novel which ought to have been a foreword, since it answers the exclamation practically every reader will make on seeing it: ‘Such a short novel!’ One hundred and nineteen pages of large print would hardly make a novella: it is only slightly more than a short story. Narayan is perfectly aware of this inevitable reaction from his devoted readers, who can never have enough of Malgudi. His reply is uncharacteristically forceful: ‘Why not only 119 pages? I question. While a poet or dramatist rarely exceeds a hundred pages even in his most ambitious work, and is accepted without anyone commenting upon the length of his composition, a writer of fiction is often subject to a quantitative evaluation.’ Too true: we are conditioned by the size and weight of the classics, of the Odyssey and the Mahabharata, of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, to take seriously only what has weight, although the weight of a book’s worth ought surely not to be connected with its avoirdupois.

The point is, can Narayan satisfy his reader with a book of this length, or rather brevity? He confesses that although he set out to write ‘a full-length novel, and grandly titled it Novel No 14’, it simply would not proceed beyond page 119, ‘when it came to a halt, like a motorcar run out of petrol’. Far from being depressed, he decided – with that buoyancy of spirit that is a characteristic of a Malgudi man – that he enjoyed, that he preferred ‘the shorter form, because it gives me scope for elaboration of details, but within certain limits; I can take up a variety of subjects and get through each in a reasonable time, while a novel ties me down to a single theme for at least two years. When I am at work on a novel, I imagine that I am keeping out a crowd of characters waiting outside my door, who are in search of their author.’

It will be reassuring for his devotees to know that the little town of Malgudi still has treasures to be discovered and explored – eccentric and everyday characters, piquant and commonplace situations – and that Narayan is ready and waiting to record their tales. The question remains: can a novel that has ‘no laboured detail and description of dress, deportment, facial features, furniture, food and drinks – passages I ruthlessly skip when reading a novel’ – give the reader a sense of a whole world created, of characters of flesh and blood whose experiences take over one’s imagination and convince one of their likelihood and importance? It is in Narayan’s style that the secret lies, the style of which Graham Greene said: ‘After the death of Evelyn Waugh, Narayan is the stylist I most admire.’ Economy is, of course, its salient feature: ‘While writing, I prefer to keep such details to a minimum in order to save my readers the bother of skipping. Also, I have a habit of pruning and trimming when I look over the first draft, and then in a second draft a further lopping off is certain until I am satisfied that the narrative progresses smoothly.’ Narayan sees ‘details’ as an impediment to the smooth progress of the narrative: very kindly he removes them from the reader’s way. How does he convey with any force what he wishes to say of his characters and their lives? By trimming each sentence so that its meaning stands out vividly, unobscured, unsoftened, making exactly the impact on the reader’s mind that he wishes to make, no more and no other.

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