Judging by the title, Arundhati Roy’s second novel must be a joyfest. Named The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, this will be the author’s sophomore effort after a 20-year wait. Compared to famous procrastinators such as Harper Lee and Leon Tolstoy, two decades might not seem much, but what hides behind the wait?
I, for one, am really looking forward to reading The Ministry of Utmost
Happiness. If it is anything like The
God of Small Things, Arundhati’s only novel so far, I expect free-jazz-like
sentences jumping off the page. A language as rich as the twins Rahel and
Estha’s imagination. And a million-story plot. I want to be surprised and
shaken, but also entertained.
Therein, then, lies
the dilemma of the “tardy” author.
I have often
wondered what led the likes of Joyce and Kundera to wait several years before continuing
to do what was apparently natural to them: writing a novel. The former let
seventeen years slip by between Ulysses
and Finnegans Wake. The latter took
thirteen to complete The Festival of
Insignificance after the publication of Ignorance.
Was it fear of not rising up to the challenge posed by the devoted reader? Or perhaps
dea(r)th of creativity?
I have a theory. Authors
whose oeuvre transcends the confines of literature and become bywords for cultural
phenomena (think Rushdie’s Satanic Verses
and its social and political connotations) have much more to lose if their next
book does not stand up to scrutiny as their previous one. That is quite a lot
of pressure already. On top of that, there is the commercial one. They have to
make money. After all, this is their craft. So, making money whilst remaining
authentic. Fancy giving it a try, reader?
A second reason for
any dilly-dallying about bringing another book out could be linked to fear of
disappointing followers. For me, Kundera’s philosophical musings are central to
his narratives. Without them, I would not have enjoyed The Joke or The Book of
Laughter and Forgetting. Hence my feelings of frustration when I read his
three “French” novellas(they were written in French rather than Czech, the
language he had used until then). They lacked his usual insightful, eagle-eye examinations,
even if any trace of philosophy in them felt as if it had been thrown in at the
last minute. Understandably, Milan went away and came back with what many thought
was a return to the golden years of The
Unbearable Lightness of Being, his 2015 effort The Festival of Insignificance.
be another factor. Harper Lee famously miscalculated the impact of To Kill a Mockingbird on both the public
and the critics. The fact that the novel was so well received and that there
was such open encouragement for her to keep on writing might have been one of the
reasons why she became a recluse.
Some of you are
probably thinking “Yes, but writing and
publishing are two different things. The former can take two days or two years
or two decades. The latter is decided by a group of people, including the
writer’s agent, a publisher and editor and it is done within a reasonable time
You are right. Not
only that, but also, not writing a second or third or fourth novel for fifteen,
twenty or thirty years does not mean that the writer does not write at all. Arundhati Roy has been very, very busy
writing non-fiction for the last two decades. Some of it I have read and it is
just as good as the make-believe world she created in The God of Small Things.
What, then, makes a
writer procrastinate? I have no idea. What I do know is that sometimes, just
like now, it is worth the wait. I have not read The Ministry of Utmost Happiness yet, but I am sure that by the end of
the book I will have surely partaken in Roy’s literary joyfest.
Next Post: “Thoughts
in Progress”, to be published on Saturday 15th October at 6pm