- Prose of the World: Modernism and the Banality of Empire by Saikat Majumdar
In his 1924 essay “Boredom,” Siegfried Kracauer observed that it was becoming impossible “to find the peace and quiet necessary to be as thoroughly bored with the world as it ultimately deserves.” From Pascal to Lichtenberg and Cioran, there is a long history of witty aphorisms about boredom. Yet does boredom take on different forms, dependent upon history and culture, or gender and race? Saikat Majumdar’s Prose of the World shows how boredom and banality are conditioned by social forces, and makes a compelling case for the importance of boredom as literary affect through a global “archive” of four late-modernist colonial and postcolonial writers: James Joyce (Ireland), Katherine Mansfield (New Zealand), Zoë Wicomb (South Africa), and Amit Chaudhuri (India). If boredom is often considered to be a narrative lack—something that literature must, by its very nature, cover up or dismiss (one recalls “Mr Bailey, Grocer,” the unfinished novel that Biffen tries to write in New Grub Street)—Majumdar seeks to show how boredom lies at the very heart of a revitalized engagement with the experience of life-at-the-margins. According to Majumdar, the novel of spectacular and dramatic events is uncharacteristic to the postcolonial experience. The great milestones of history—such as the partition of India, or the struggle against apartheid—that seem to fuse individual and collective destinies into “national allegories” are rare things indeed, for the overwhelming experience of living beyond the metropole is conditioned by cultural lack, paralysis, immobility, and ceaseless routine.
Majumdar’s book operates on two levels. Firstly, it seeks to understand the narratological status of the everyday, exploring how “the banality of eventlessness” (7) can serve as a structural basis for the literary text. Secondly, it addresses a “historically specific moment” (105) in which imperial domination comes in contact with the emergence of local cultural production. Prose of the World is most engaging when it reflects on the imperial backgrounds and specific historical concerns shaping its literary case studies through varied readings of “boredom.” For example, Majumdar deftly shows how a banal object like Bloom’s potato talisman bears suggestive symbolic significance against the historical backdrop of the Irish potato famine, as well as the country’s modern cultural reality. He also discusses how Mansfield’s fiction negotiated the historical shadow of violence within Maori-settler relations. The two chapters on Wicomb and Chaudhuri relate their works historically, but also contain engaging theoretical discussions of an anthropological turn in literary studies and the canonization of master narratives in postcolonial fiction.
Although Majumdar claims that boredom, as a “noncathartic motif” (6), has been relatively sidelined in literary criticism, it is becoming a hot topic in the current late-capitalist moment. [End Page 572] The motif manifests itself in the form of IRS employees in David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King (2011) or of Norwegian “slow television,” showing hours of characters performing mundane tasks like sewing or chopping wood. Two other important recent critical inquiries into boredom not mentioned by Majumbar include Peter Toohey’s Boredom: A Lively History (2011) and Alison Pease’s Modernism, Feminism, and the Culture of Boredom (2012). While Toohey’s book engagingly relates the pleasure of ennui, Pease’s work is more solidly literary-historical, describing the construction of a collective feminist identity in early twentieth-century Britain through the optic of boredom and inactivity. This is a missed opportunity for a constructive intertextual dialogue, given Majumdar’s gendered readings of Mansfield and Wicomb.
A more significant shortcoming of Majumdar’s book is that it does not substantively engage with boredom as a cultural and literary phenomenon in the metropolis. Majumdar’s philological investigation reveals that boredom is a key theme in the modern history of the novel form. As Samuel Johnson put it in his attack on literary fiction in The Rambler, no good could come from literature written for “the young, the ignorant, and the idle.” In other words, the novel’s ability to...