Hatterr Abroad in Contemporary Literature

research, modernism, world literature

My essay on the sociology of G. V. Desani, “Hatterr Abroad: G. V. Desani on the Scene of World Literature,” is now out in Contemporary Literature (downloadable via Project Muse or University of Wisconsin Press Journals). I take the reception of Desani’s novel All About H. Hatterr as a demonstration of the divergences among readers in the system of “world literature,” a system structured by inequalities of symbolic power. The novel itself makes a theme of this disempowerment at the hands of cultural mediators—but Desani’s satire did not forestall readers in India, Britain, and the United States from appropriating his novel for their own purposes as a cornerstone of a properly “desi” Indian novel canon, a freakish feat of style, or an exemplar of global or international modernism. My account thus emphasizes a sociological interpretation of reception and mediation over the meanings one might discover through a “reading” of Hatterr.

I draw a cautionary lesson for modernist studies from my study of Desani’s reception: Desani, linked from the first with international high modernism, is always also read as inferior and belated by comparison to the axial figures of the Anglo-modernist canon to whom he is insistently compared. My prognosis for the field’s attempts to “expand” modernism is quite pessimistic; individual good intentions stand little chance in the face of the complicity, so clearly traced by Desani’s reception history, among the Eliot-Joyce canon, the uneven geographic distribution of symbolic power, and the reading protocols dictated by modernist aesthetics.

In true Hatterr-ly fashion, my material on Desani and his work insistently spilled over the bounds of the essay and its argument. The nice thing about a blog is that there’s somewhere to spill. So a couple of extra fragments.

I wasn’t able to incorporate anything about Desani’s short stories into the essay, which was long enough. Many of them bear strikingly, however, on questions of cultural mediation in the global cultural field. They are collected in “Hali” and Collected Stories (New York: McPherson, 1991). I wrote a little about a particularly grotesque and funny late story, “Since a Nation Must Export, Smithers!” in an Arcade post a while ago.

I was also dying for an excuse to insert my fragmentary discoveries about Desani’s first publisher in the essay, but never found one. All About Mr. Hatterr: A Gesture was published by Francis Aldor in London in 1948. Ferenc (Francis) Aldor was Arthur Koestler’s cousin; he seems to have published mostly genteel pornography. Koestler made some money writing, or rather confecting, sexological texts for his cousin, who sold them for prurient interest.1 I do not know just how Desani got published by Aldor, though I suspect there’s more to the story than Desani’s later claim (which I talk a little about in the essay) that he was the only publisher who “had any paper.” This is only the beginning of Desani’s entirely Hatterresque publication history, which my essay traces or rather cites. The bibliography, within the limits of the (grr) MLA style used by CL, includes my listing of every version of the novel I could lay my hands on here in the US and in the UK (which, thanks to the British Library, includes some Indian issues as well), though as a bibliographer I am ludicrously amateurish.

This article took a long time to put together, written as it was during my own peregrinations (not nearly as wide-ranging as Desani’s, but disruptive enough) across multiple institutions. A lot of people helped me along: Anne DeWitt, Harris Feinsod, Meredith McGill, Preetha Mani, John Marx, Amardeep Singh, Blakey Vermeule, the 2010–11 Mellon fellows at Stanford, who workshopped a version, the members of the Rutgers English department junior faculty writing group, who workshopped another version, two anonymous readers for Contemporary Literature, and audiences at the Modernist Studies Association, Rutgers, and the University of Utrecht.

The remaining flaws are all my own, and God bless the Duke of Argyll!

  1. Aldor gossip from Iain Hamilton, Koestler: A Biography (New York: Macmillan, 1982). Google also turns him up meeting André Deutsch, the publisher, in an internment camp for enemy nationals on the Isle of Man during the Second World War.