Terry Eagleton on Nation and the Novel

Terry Eagleton on Patrick Parrinder’s exploration on the relationship between the Nation and Novel, published by Oxford this year.

I am not sure if such a study has been done on the Indian novel. The concept of an Indian novel is itself contestable- just like that of the Indian nation itself. This is so because of the difference in the nature of the Indian nation- with strong variances, over 16 major languages, hundreds of dialects and a heterogenity that make it difficult for a national literature to emerge.

The only pan- Indian phenomenon that one can think of is politics and caste, possibly cinema to an extent. In everything else- like food, dress, language, festivals, rituals- it is a conglomeration of an astonishing variety. Increasingly, in the context of a globalizing world, English, and not so much Hindi, is the mode of expression of a relatively small but an otherwise variegated middle class.

As its name suggests, deriving as it does from “new”, the novel is the product of the modern, secularised world. Sceptical of absolutes and wary of conventions, it is the kind of writing in which you can do more or less what you like. You can explore emotional intimacies, record the decline of a whole civilisation or – if you happen to be Marcel Proust – combine the two. Unlike ancient tragedy or the court masque, the novel is an “unofficial” form, with no formal links to state or sovereign. In fact, it is less a genre in its own right than one that continually cannibalises other genres. As a promiscuous mix of drama, poetry, tragedy, epic, narrative and romance, it is the most hybrid of all canonical forms….

The rise of the novel goes hand-in-hand with the emergence of the modern nation-state. When it first appears in 18th-century Britain, the novel is among other things an exercise in nation-building. It helps to mould a shared national sensibility, as well as holding an admiring or satirical mirror to it. Novels, Parrinder points out, are consumed in private, unlike classical theatre or oral narrative; but they also depend on the presence of a sizeable community of men and women who speak the same language and share roughly the same cultural assumptions. Such communities are generally known as nations, and fictions play a key role in their collective image of themselves. Because novels are capacious pieces of writing, they have the space to roam from one end of the social scale to the other, shifting from Fagin’s underworld to Brownlow’s suburbia. No other kind of literary art can match their blend of social range and psychological subtlety.

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