Art and Life: Unraveling a Puzzle

By Anjum Altaf

The relationship between art and life may not have been a puzzle to most but it was to me. And it was not resolved by the debate over whether art ought to be for its own or for life’s sake. This was a difference over the purpose or otherwise of art whereas my interest was in the nature of the relationship. At one level, art must reflect life since it cannot exist in a vacuum. But this only opens up a number of questions: To what extent does art reflect life and what might be a measure of the goodness of that reflection?

I am concerned here with the novel as a particular form of art. The novel is a story and so in some sense is life. There is, therefore, a natural correspondence between the two. Life, however, is messy, all over the place, and any novel that attempted to reflect it faithfully would be likely to be unreadable. I presume that is the reason I have not been able to read Ulysses despite my best intentions.

Most novels, unsurprisingly, extract some aspects of life and cut out its messiness. We can get a sense of this if we consider what we typically ask for in a ‘good’ novel – tight plot, taut storyline, minimal digressions, well-rounded characters, and the like. At the very least, we don’t like the action to sag and complain if it does. But real life is almost all sag; characters are involved in any number of related or unrelated stories and break up their days for mundane acts that we expect to be left out of the story as reflected in the novel.

This extraction of the essence of the ‘real’ story, the omission of the seemingly irrelevant, might be considered necessary, even a strength of the novel. Art does reflect life but in a stylized manner designed to sustain the interest of the reader with limited time and patience.

This is an understanding I arrived at working backwards from what to me was an exception to the rule – The Legend of Pradeep Mathew, a debut novel by Shehan Karunatilaka. This was the first novel I have read that made the messiness of life so much an integral part of the story and was able to carry it off. I became engrossed in, indeed I wished to know, everything that Wije did whether it was part of the story or not. In some uncanny way, the non-story became a part of the story itself.

What I took away from my reading of The Legend of Pradeep Mathew was that the extraction of the essence of life was not necessarily a strength of the novel, it was more a reflection of the limits of the novelist. To reflect life faithfully and remain interesting and readable is beyond the capability of most authors. And hence, one measure of the success of a novel might be the degree it can be faithful to life and yet remain readable. Joyce might be the master of faithfulness but ventures beyond the absorptive capacity of most readers. Pradeep Mathew hit the sweet spot for a reader like me.

Faithfulness, at one level, can be considered a synonym for realism – if there are two-dimensional characters in real life, those who only serve and wait, why shouldn’t they appear as such in a novel? At another, the relationship is more complex. Pradeep Mathew has been criticized for its ‘unreal’ end. But this too had an appeal for me. In real life, characters are a mix of action, thought and imagination. What may never happen but a character desperately wishes to transpire to the extent that the reader begins to wish it too, is also a part of life that can find a place in a novel.

Shehan Karunatilaka writes, quite believably, that once in a while there comes a bowler who can make the same ball break both ways. Pradeep Mathew is a novel in that mould – one that both formed and broke apart my mental picture of the relationship between art and life and forced me back to the nets. Well bowled, indeed.

Anjum Altaf is Dean of the School of Humanities, Social Sciences and Law at the Lahore University of Management Sciences.


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  • Kabir
    Posted at 16:37h, 12 August Reply

    You are right that most “good” novels are supposed to have tight plots and minimal digressions. However, one famous novel that has many digressions and covers every aspect of a society–from music to poetry to land reform to religious tensions–is Vikram Seth’s “A Suitable Boy”. Though it is ostensibly a story about a mother looking for an appropriate match for her daughter, it is really a comprehensive portrait of 1950s India.

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 18:37h, 12 August

      Kabir: I had something different in mind. A novel can have a wide scope and yet not get inside a character’s rhythm of life in a way that the reader derives pleasure just from following the character around quite independent of the story. It is as if the reader were to lose interest in the portrait of 1950s India and the appropriate match and become enraptured by the minutiae of Lata’s day.

    • Kabir
      Posted at 19:25h, 12 August

      You mean something like “Mrs. Dalloway”?

      According to Wikipedia: “In Mrs Dalloway, all of the action, except flashbacks, takes place on a day in June. It is an example of stream of consciousness storytelling: every scene closely tracks the momentary thoughts of a particular character. Woolf blurs the distinction between direct and indirect speech throughout the novel, freely alternating her mode of narration between omniscient description, indirect interior monologue, and soliloquy.[2] The narration follows at least twenty characters in this way but the bulk of the novel is spent with Clarissa Dalloway and Septimus Smith.”

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 17:29h, 13 August

      Kabir: If I read Mrs. Dalloway and you read Pradeep Mathew we might be better able to understand the point.

      As I mentioned, one can think of three types of archetypal characters – the man/woman of action, of thought, and of imagination. Illustrations, in order, might be Khoji in Pandit Ratan Nath Sarshar’s Fasana-e Azad, any of Haruki Murakami’s protagonists, and Don Quixote. Any character is some mix of these three pure types. The stream of consciousness genre plays up the thought process of the character as in Ulysses and, I presume, in Mrs. Dalloway. But stream of consciousness does not automatically generate what I am trying to articulate. If the reader became engrossed in the thinking of the character, even the thinking not related directly to the plot, it may approach the sensation I felt with Wije in Pradeep Mathew. I had never really experienced a novel in which a character became interesting outside of the plot in which he/she was embedded. I now know that is possible and also that it is rare like the ball that breaks twice.

      To put it another way, imagine wanting to say to a character ‘get out of this story and come home with me for a drink.’

    • Kabir
      Posted at 22:58h, 13 August

      I know what you’re saying. I feel like that about quite a few of the characters in “A Suitable Boy”

  • Ercelan PILER
    Posted at 16:06h, 16 August Reply

    impatient to read the book!

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