I was pleasantly surprised to receive a brief email from Daniyal Mueenuddin last week (See previous entry.) Here is what he said.
Thanks for your thoughts regarding the ending of the story. I agree that the ending might be read this way, but would suggest that Turgenev would not consciously have had this program in mind as he wrote the story. My feeling is, all interpretations are fair, if
All best wishes
It was very kind of Mr. Mueenuddin to take the time to respond. I agree with him that all interpretations are fair, if plausible. And as a reader, I am not overly concerned with what Turgenev might have had in mind when he wrote the story. But what constitutes the plausibility of an interpretation of a story? And if an author does not “consciously” have a meaning in mind, how does meaning get into a story? I have said before that an author may discover meaning in the process of writing because of associations and writing techniques he or she has internalized in previous reading. But that discovery may be inchoate in the writer’s mind, and, not being overly concerned with how readers may interpret his story, he or she may not be bothered with articulating the results of his or her discovery in the writing process.
I don’t want to take up space here with this issue, but will return to it when I talk more about Eudora Welty’s reading of one of her own stories that I mentioned in a previous post. I know I keep saying I will come back to certain things, and I will, I will. I just like to let things gel a bit, and there is so much to say.
The issue I wish to talk about here is raised by the buzz surrounding Mr. Mueenuddin’s new collection of stories that came out this week, In Other Rooms, Other Wonders.’ In the first review I read of the book, in the January 31 issue of The Wall Street Journal, Jeffrey A. Trachtenberg says that what distinguishes this book is its focus on class struggles within Pakistan. He says the book “offers readers a look inside a culture that is in the headlines. It is the voice of Pakistan from within Pakistan.”
In an interview on the website Ultrabrown.com, Mueenuddin is asked if he sees himself as a political writer, concerned with showing the dynamic heterogeneous side of Pakistan. He replies that this is not what he was thinking when he wrote the stories. He says he objects to the idea of writers being too political, for while it gets them a readymade audience, it takes something away from the writing. When the interviewer says that with all the attention being given to the book, he is going to become a spokesperson for his country, Mueenuddin says he does not want to be a spokesman for Pakistan. He says that writing is “play” for him, something he has enormous fun doing.
Even though writers are most always more concerned with their craft than political or social issues, interviewers and reporters are most always determined to get them to talk about politics and social issues.
One of the most famous stories that has raised this issue in the history of short story criticism is Gogol’s wonderful story, “The Overcoat.” I remember when I was an undergraduate in a short story class taught by the great Kentucky writer, James Still, I first read “The Overcoat.” Mr. Still thought it was brilliant and of course read it like a writer. It has been a favorite of mine ever since. The story of the poverty-stricken little copyist with the absurd name of Akaky Akakievich is so well-known that it has been said that most modernist Russian fiction springs from under Gogol's "Overcoat." Gogol combines what seems to be social realism of everyday Petersburg life with the fantastic style of folklore. Indeed, most of the commentary that has been written on the story focuses either on its realistic nature or its fantastic style. Irish short-story writer Frank O'Connor has said that what makes the story so magnificent is Gogol's focus on the little man and his emphasis on Akaky's implicit call for human brotherhood. (See O’Connor’s The Lonely Voice) On the other hand, in what is perhaps the best-known discussion of the story, Russian formalist critic Boris Ejxenbaum claims that the genius of the story depends on the role played by the author's personal tone and the story's use of Russian folktale oral conventions. Ejxenbaum suggests that the so-called humane passage in which Akaky cries out, “Leave me alone. Why do you insult me?” is a play with the language in which Gogol links a declamatory style with a comic folktale style for the sake of creating a contrapuntal tension. (This essay, under the title “How Gogol’s ‘Overcoat’ is Made” can be found in Gogol from the Twentieth Century, ed. Robert Maguire. Princeton UP, 1974).
Ejxenbaum’s suggestion that Gogol is more interested in playing with the two declamatory styles than he is in the social situation of poor Akakey is often cited as an example of the problem with formalist readings—they seem to suck the life blood out of the story.
However, Ejxenbaum’s method of focusing on the style of the story is the very kind of reading that Francine Prose argues for in her book Reading Like a Writer. Prose’s central point is that to be a good reader, one must be knowledgeable of, and sensitive to, those elements of writing that constitute the craft: words, sentences, character, dialogue, and details. Prose reminds us of something that students of literature often find it hard to accept—that subject matter is not all that important, that what the writer most often wants to do is write really great sentences. Many current literature students, who have been taught to read for social themes, political issues, and cultural contexts, might therefore assume that Prose’s book was written for creative writing majors. That is just not the case.
Over and over, Prose urges the reader to focus on words, rhythm, and pattern–not subject matter. By relentlessly insisting on the importance of language and form, Prose reinforces what William H. Gass has argued in Finding a Form: that the artist's "fundamental loyalty must be to form.” Every other diddly desire," insists Gass, "can find expression; every crackpot idea or local obsession, every bias and graciousness and mark of malice, may have an hour; but it must never be allowed to carry the day."
Prose’s insistence on the importance of language and literary form seems so obvious it is difficult to see how anyone could deny it. But of course that the excellence of writing depends not on its content but its language and form is denied in classrooms around the world every day. In fact, the very idea of artistic form and excellence is often challenged in many of those classrooms.
In my next blog, I will talk about Mueenuddin’s best-known story, “Nawabdin Electrician,” which is in his new book and which was chosen by Salman Rushdie for the 2008 Best American Short Stories. It originally appeared in The New Yorker on August 27, 2007. You can find it by googling “Nawabdin Electrician New Yorker.” If you get a chance, read it; it is very brief. Perhaps we can have a little discussion about the topic of political issues versus formal issues in relationship to this story.