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A sunlit page: Shelf life and beyond

  • Published at 07:12 pm April 29th, 2018
  • Last updated at 07:24 pm April 29th, 2018
A sunlit page: Shelf life and beyond
I am in the midst of de-cluttering and rearranging the overpopulated English language bookshelves of the floor-to-ceiling library wall of my study room: Multi-tiers of volumes, all awry, tumbling over each other, leaning drunkenly left or right or passed out on top of other fellow books. Here’s Dave Eggar’s A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius staggering a bit literally and genially against the forbearing solidity of Ian McEwan’s substantial Atonement, and there’s AS Byatt’s extravagant Possession: A Romance nudging the layered luminosity of John Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman, which is sliding slowly into the dystopian arms of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, which in turn is sinking towards a stack of slim but clever works abuzz with ideas: Julian Barne’s Flaubert’s Parrot, Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler…, Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire, Rushdie’s Haroun and the Sea of Stories, and Jorge Luis Borges’ Labyrinth, among others. This, I know, is a dangerous part of my library, not because I’m sitting precariously atop the detachable ladder clamped to the IKEA bookshelves, but because, in the process of shifting any one of these book to some other shelf, I invariably end up peeking randomly between the covers and raise my head to find that fifteen minutes have flitted away while I had drifted into the alternate world between reality and fiction. There’s a name for this genre, not a simple representation of reality, nor a traditional fictional technique. Each book challenges old assumptions about the narrative art. I’ll find the word, but for the moment, I must get back to work. So I lift all these intoxicating, chattering books and put them in a cardboard box to deal with later. Gazing at the rest of the untidy shelves displaying book-spines, all crooked like rows of mouths full of badly set teeth, I think that a dentist would have used braces. But I arm myself with dozens of metal and plastic bookends and start my pleasurable task of straightening the hardcover and paperback tomes, restoring an even-toothed smile to my book wall. This gives my shelves a superficial neatness, but it’s not easy to find individual books. So I try to create categories but it’s not a simple act, I discover, since some books (like people) elude any one category and seem to belong to many genres at once. Still I proceed with the more easy to manage general and natural categories, and find that I have no problems separating the volumes of short stories from the anthologies of poetry or collections of plays, the biographies from memoirs and autobiographies, the texts on literary criticism from philosophical work. But longer fiction is another matter, and at many levels (including how high up on the book shelves they should go) poses challenges of categorization. I have to start somewhere, so imagining myself as some sort of a literary Cyril Radcliffe I blithely do a partition within my mixed cache of peacefully co-existing sub-continental novels, and sacrificing history for the alphabet, I put Bangladesh first, then India, then Pakistan. It’s child’s play also to gather and alphabetize the translated foreign literature section, plucking Isabelle Allende from the middle of the library where she was gossiping with Doris Lessing and placing her before Gunter Grass, Milan Kundera and Orhan Pamuk. I whistle as I corral the complete works of Steinbeck and Shakespeare, Hemingway and Hardy, John Auster and Jane Austen, Daphne du Maurier and Armistead Maupin. My trained eyes spot and weed out a Michael Cunningham from a row of Michael Ondaatje, or a JD Salinger from a multitude of JM Coetzee. But what to do with the many other books that do not fall into a neat category or shelf, or that seem to belong to many groups? Does Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Marble Faun or Henry James’ The Italian Hours go into my shelf of Books on Italy or with the author’s own group of books? Does Herman Hesse’s Siddharta fall into the category of Philosophical or Spiritual fiction along with Richard Bach’s Jonathan Livingston Seagull, or as Translated Foreign Literature? I wanted a shelf of Booker winning authors, but that meant breaking up my collection of the writer’s oeuvre. Now I turn to the box I had set apart, containing the books that I mentioned at the beginning. I realize that these books have something in common that always strike a chord in me. I know that I would like these books to always be in an accessible place, within easy reach. I cannot create for them a shelf labeled Favourite Fiction, because I have many others that would fit the bill more appropriately. Maybe the category should be Books Admired. Yet, there are many others too that I admire as much. But what makes these books special? Then it occurs to me that these are books that I love not just as a reader but as a writer. These books are examples of an attitude to writing, (playful, experimental, self-referential) that speaks to the writer in me. All these authors are practitioners of the genre called metafiction. This is the delightful genre of fiction that is the opposite of the “willing suspension of disbelief” and reflects on its own fictional existence, concerns itself less about a merely accurate and realistic exposition of the world and of conventionally perceived reality, and more about language and narrative techniques for crafting fiction in ever fresh ways. More about metafiction next time!
Neeman Sobhan is a writer, poet and columnist. She lives in Italy and teaches at the University of Rome. Her published works include a collection of her columns, An Abiding City: Ruminations from Rome (UPL); an anthology of short stories, Piazza Bangladesh (Bengal Publications); and a collection of poems, Calligraphy of Wet Leaves (Bengal Lights Books).