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Tuesday, Dec 10, 2019

‘Important to scrutinise both art and propaganda’

Lucy Ellmann, says the literary scene today is probably on ‘it’s last legs’ and the final outcome of the 2019 Booker Prize was ‘a depressing compromise’

books Updated: Nov 21, 2019 16:02 IST
Navneet Vyasan
Navneet Vyasan
Mumbai
US-born British novelist Lucy Ellmann poses with her book Ducks, Newburyport during the photo call for the authors shortlisted for the 2019 Booker Prize for Fiction at Southbank Centre in London on October 13, 2019
US-born British novelist Lucy Ellmann poses with her book Ducks, Newburyport during the photo call for the authors shortlisted for the 2019 Booker Prize for Fiction at Southbank Centre in London on October 13, 2019(PHOTO: AFP)
         

navneet.vyasan@htlive.com

How often does one write about a patriarchal society? How often does one succeed in shoving society back to its returnable darkened corners? And how is it, that despite repeated attempts – some successful, some not – literature, has time and again been able to show a mirror to the society with the veracity that remains unparalleled. For Lucy Ellmann, all of the above stands true. Her latest work, Ducks Newburyport, is what some call literature written in “a stream of consciousness”. Ellmann says, “All my novels berate patriarchal society. Which it well deserves.”

With just over a thousand pages, the novel consists mostly of a single sentence that is testimony to Ellmann’s literary prowess and her command over the language. “I was trying to represent a mind through thoughts, memories, sensations, circular ruminations, intellectual habits, dreams, linguistics, unfiltered inputs, and old and new associations,” she says, calling it a “hypothetical approximation of how the mind may work”.

“I made it one sentence, because I don’t think there’s much punctuation going on in people’s interior monologues. But ‘stream of consciousness’ is a somewhat inexact term. I prefer one critic’s description of Ducks as a ‘stream of conscience’,” quips the author.

“I was trying to represent a mind through thoughts, memories, sensations, circular ruminations, intellectual habits, dreams, linguistics, unfiltered inputs, and old and new associations”

Her book started making waves even before its release with her work becoming the talk of the town. Shortlisted for the Booker Prize, Ellmann’s prose shone brightly among its contemporaries.

Familial influence

Growing up in a house devoted to literature, Ellmann’s father, Richard, was a noted American literary critic and her mother, Mary , too, was an accomplished writer. Though, she admits that her father wanted her to become an “academic”, failing which he suggested, “bookbinder”. The author explains, “I’m no scholar, and haven’t much interest in books as objets d’art. Instead, I tried to be a sculptor, then an art critic. I wrote my first novel sort of by chance, all because Alexandra Pringle, a friend of mine who worked as an editor at Virago Press in London (UK), commissioned me to write one. Otherwise, I doubt I ever would have tried. With her encouragement I got hooked.”

Treading uncharted waters

Only time will tell how Ellmann’s latest work performs. But should it go on to become her most accomplished work, the author says she’d find it hard to explain how she wrote it. “It’s almost impossible to unravel intelligibly what the process was,” she says. What she calls a labour of intensive exhaustion, in Ducks Newburyport, she says, the narrator was not given a lot of sexual freedom. “Some of my previous female characters have perhaps had more fun sexually than the narrator in Ducks, in between their frequent bouts of sexual deprivation,” she says, but stresses on the fact that, “not one of them is fully liberated”.

India through her eyes

Though Ellmann has never set foot on Indian shores, she knows the country’s cultural pre-eminence from its golden days. “Look at India, with its ancient exultation in sexuality and delight in the female form,” she says. The author exudes a charm while not being afraid to mince her thoughts. Often a praise worthy remark and a sharp reality check come hand-in-hand, a personality that mirrors that of a VS Naipaul (one can watch his interviews) or a JD Salinger (the ruthlessness of his mighty pen), for she does not hold back, “Now you’ve got repression, misogyny, and a rape epidemic. This is what patriarchy does. It ruins everything,” says the author who has also been long listed for the Women’s Prize for Fiction.

“Look at India, with its ancient exultation in sexuality and delight in the female form. Now you’ve got repression, misogyny, and a rape epidemic. This is what patriarchy does. It ruins everything”

Literature today

And her reservations are not confined to India. As for the overall literary scene? Her reply speaks of itself, “Is there a ‘literary scene’? I think it’s on its last legs. That’s why it’s even more important now to write what you want to write. My main aim is to reassert the novel as an art form,” she says, adding, “We will need to re-establish matriarchy before that can happen.”

“There will always be politics running through what you write. Art is art and propaganda is propaganda. They are very different endeavours”

There’s no doubt that Ellmann’s work is that of humongous ambition and experimental courage. But there’s more to it than meets the eye. Ellmann’s narrator is, no doubt, a product of modern civilisation. And time and again, her storyline is interrupted by that of a lioness, a naive product of nature. One can read it as he/she likes – a contrasting social commentary or one may come face to face with some other behemoth elucidation hidden behind her sentences. And the author admits that “There will always be politics running through what you write”. But what about artistes, these days, being docketed as participants of propaganda? “Art is art and propaganda is propaganda. They are very different endeavours,” she says, before adding what one can only agree is the cornerstone of good literary progress – “They are very different endeavours, and both need to be scrutinised.”

On the Booker Prize 2019

The Booker Prize winning books were usually too mainstream for my taste, so I was very surprised to get on the shortlist. It seemed exciting at first, but this year the judging process was flawed. I’m not too impressed with the outcome. I feel bad for the authors on the list. Actually, I feel bad for everybody on the list, including the winners. The final result was a depressing compromise.