All About H. Hatterr
All About H. Hatterr (1948) is a novel by G. V. Desani chronicling the adventures of an Anglo-Malay man in search of wisdom and enlightenment. "As far back as in 1951," Desani later wrote, "I said H. Hatterr was a portrait of a man, the common vulgar species, found everywhere, both in the East and in the West".
Literary significance and reception
|“||The writer I have placed alongside Narayan, G.V. Desani, has fallen so far from favour that the extraordinary All About H. Hatterr is presently out of print everywhere, even in India. Milan Kundera once said that all modern literature descends from either Richardson's Clarissa or Sterne's Tristram Shandy, and if Narayan is India's Richardson then Desani is his Shandean other. Hatterr's dazzling, puzzling, leaping prose is the first genuine effort to go beyond the Englishness of the English language. His central figure, 'fifty-fifty of the species,' the half-breed as unabashed anti-hero, leaps and capers behind many of the texts in this book. Hard to imagine I. Allan Sealy's Trotter-Nama without Desani. My own writing, too, learned a trick or two from him.||”|
The mad English of All About H. Hatterr is a thoroughly self-conscious and finely controlled performance, as Anthony Burgess points out in its preface:
|“||But it is the language that makes the book, a sort of creative chaos that grumbles at the restraining banks. It is what may be termed Whole Language, in which philosophical terms, the colloquialisms of Calcutta and London, Shakespeareian archaisms, bazaar whinings, quack spiels, references to the Hindu pantheon, the jargon of Indian litigation, and shrill babu irritability seethe together. It is not pure English; it is, like the English of Shakespeare, Joyce and Kipling, gloriously impure.||”|
Comments Amardeep Singh, Assistant Professor of English at Lehigh University on the novel's mad English:
|“||One of the reasons many people are afraid of this novel is its reputation for slang-ridden obscurity. Actually, it's not that obscure -- certainly not as difficult as Ulysses (and not even on the same astral plane as Finnegans Wake). Moreover, the obscurity is generally literary, not linguistic. In the first 100 or so pages of the novel, I counted a total of ten Hindi words in the text. And most of those are 'Hobson-Jobson' words like topi (hat), which would have been readily familiar to readers in 1948...
Anthony Burgess, in his preface to the 1969 edition of the novel, is also careful to disavow the métèque label that dogged late colonial African writers like Amos Tutuola. F. W. Bateson coined Métèque as a way of referring to writers for whom English was a second or third language, who don't respect (or don't know) 'the finer rules of English idiom and grammar'.
It's not that such writing can't produce interesting effects. But successful forays into slang or, even further, dialect English, are rarely interesting to fluent English speakers unless they are carefully controlled -- by a writer who is quite confident (and of course competent) in the language. The writer may have a memory of learning English, but he or she cannot still be learning English at the time of the writing of the novel. Conrad, Nabokov, and even the contemporary writer Jonathan Safran Foer (Everything Is Illuminated) knew exactly what they were doing. So did Desani.
The mad English of All About H. Hatterr is a thoroughly self-conscious and finely controlled performance.
All About H. Hatterr and Modernist literature
Says Amardeep Singh:
|“||Though all of this playing around seems quite modernist in shape, early in the novel Desani self-consciously disavows any connection to the Bloomsbury scene (already for the most part dead and, er, buried by 1948). In the "All About..." section (signed and dated by the author, G.V. Desani), an autobiographical chapter that details the ostensibly 'real' experiences of the author in his quest to get the manuscript of All About H. Hatterr published, he details one encounter with a Miss Betty Bloomsbohemia, to whom he addresses the following:
As for the arbitrary choice of words and constructions you mentioned. Not intended by me to invite analysis. They are there because, I think, they are natural to H. Hatterr. But, Madam! Whoever asked a cultivated mind such as yours to submit your intellectual acumen or emotions to this H. Hatterr mind? Suppose you quote me as saying, the book's simple laughing matter? Jot this down, too. I never was involved in the struggle for newer forms of expression, Neo-morality, or any such thing! What do you take me for? A busybody?
In short, Desani is saying, I'm really not trying to do anything fancy with all this Hatterr-speak. And why waste your intellectual acumen with my crazy little book? And no, I'm no modernist, not like you: nothing so
In the midst of this evasive self-acquittal is a seeming grammatical slip: "this book's simple laughing matter." There is apparently a missing indefinite article there ("a simple laughing matter"). It's possibly an Indianism (intentionally inserted), but the missing "a" makes meaning-making little bit slippery. Most obvious reading is self-deprecation.... But perhaps Desani is also playing with the idiom "laughing matter"; it is the "matter" that is "laughing" (at the reader? at Miss Betty Bloomsbohemia?). If this were Joyce, there would also be a joke here about "mater" (Latin: mother), and maybe two or three others. It's not Joyce, but there still might be two or three jokes here, not on mothers, but on naming: the book's "simple laughing" Hatterr, who is mad as a hatter, never matter the mater.
- Re-introducing All About H. Hatterr by Amardeep Singh, Assistant Professor of English at Lehigh University
- In Praise of "Balderdash" (And other words for "nonsense") by Amardeep Singh, Assistant Professor of English at Lehigh University - a blog
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