The anti-novel of the nonconformist Avant-garde | Sunday Observer

The anti-novel of the nonconformist Avant-garde

The English medium literary scene in Sri Lanka is now growing with more writers and readers as well as, literary prizes entering the scene to make the Sri Lankan realm of letters more robust. The State Literary Awards has a category for Best Novel in English, while the coveted Gratiaen Prize founded by Booker Prize winning novelist of Sri Lankan origin, Michael Ondaatje, is open to novels that may be submitted in manuscript form as well, and the latest non-state sponsored awards for fiction in Sri Lanka, which is the Fairway National Literary Award sponsored by Fairway Holdings also annually honours the Best novel in English (as well as in the categories of Sinhala and Tamil).

With the emergence of many young writers in English in our emerald isle, the ‘form’ of the novel, among the novels written in English over decades too shows a great diversity. Writers like Carl Muller, Punyakante Wijenaike, Lalitha Withanachchi, Jean Arasanayagam and Sita Kulatunga and such, who represent a pioneer generation of Sri Lankan novels in English have paved the way for new generations to find their own voices within the growing sphere of fiction in English by Sri Lankan authors.

Avant-garde forms for the novel keep developing with each successive generation, one may surmise. Forms like the epistolary novel, where the narrative is presented to the reader through letters and/or diary/journal entries of characters (a classic example being Bram Stoker’s Dracula) has been practised by writers like Punyakante Wijenaike.

From the younger generations of writers there is surely an inclination to experiment with form to explore new means for expression.

Perhaps, an example may be found in the recent winner of the 2016 Fairway National Literary Award, the novel, First Utterance by author Theena Kumaragurunathan, which I admit I have not yet read but may be thought of in such light based on what has been said about this particular novel and its form, in the press and online media.

To literature lovers, readers of novels, what could the term ‘Anti-novel’ mean? This term was brought into mainstream critical literary discourse by the revered French philosopher, theorist, writer and social reform activist Jean-Paul Sartre in 1948, through the introduction/foreword he wrote to the work Portrait d’un inconnu (Portrait of a Man Unknown) by French writer, Nathalie Sarraute’s.

This term however, is believed to have first been used in 1633 by French novelist, Charles Sorel who had challenged the general form and norm of the novel back in his day by writing prose fiction that did not conform to the general structure and principles that place imperativeness of plot and character development as fundamental to defining the novel.

Features of the anti-novel can therefore include an obvious lack of a firm plot line through which the principal character undergoes a process of development over a defined linear chronology. Distortion of chronology and fragmented narratives are also features of the anti-novel, while alternative ending and beginnings can also be features of this genre of fiction.

Some examples of the anti-novel can be seen as –Finnegans Wake by James Joyce, Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov, Hopscotch by Julio Cortazar, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentlemen by Laurence Sterne, Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs, Absalom, Absalom! By William Faulkner, The Unnamable by Samuel Becket, The iron Heel by Jack London.

While there are many more that can be added to the list it is plain to see that the anti-novel has not been a non mainstream experiment of the disenfranchised in the world of letters who wrote from the fringes.

Experimentation in narrative form is important for literature to develop variety. And, discovering newer forms of expression with new devices to narrate a novel can be a means by which new subject matter could find ground in the art of fiction.

Therefore, perhaps the art of the anti-novel may be just as important to think of in the light of gauging the art of the novel when looking at the larger picture of fiction writing in this day and age especially, where technological development may shape much of our experience of how we perceive and interpret the world. 

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