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The Romantics

Pankaj Mishra

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Title: The Romantics
Author: Pankaj Mishra
Genre: Novel
Written: 2000
Length: 254 pages
Availability: The Romantics - US
The Romantics - UK
The Romantics - Canada
The Romantics - India
Die Romantischen - Deutschland
I romantici - Italia
Los romŠnticos - España
  • Based on Mishra's article, Edmund Wilson in Benares, first published in The New York Review of Books. The article covers much of the same material as the novel (including the unlikely Rajesh) and is considerably better than the fiction Mishra then twisted out of it.

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Our Assessment:

B : fairly well written, somewhat simplistic

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Age B 17/7/2000 Annie Greet
Daily Telegraph A+ 22/2/2000 David Robson
The Economist C 18/3/2000 .
The Hindustan Times B 6/1/2000 Shubra Gupta
The Independent B+ 24/1/2000 Aamer Hussein
The Nation . 24/4/2000 Amitava Kumar
New Statesman B 14/2/2000 James Hopkin
The NY Rev. of Books A 24/2/2000 John Bayley
The NY Times A 21/3/2000 Michiko Kakutani
The NY Times Book Rev. B+ 26/2/2000 Akash Kapur
The Observer B 13/2/2000 Stephanie Merritt
Sunday Telegraph B 5/2/2000 Sukhdev Sandhu
The Sunday Times B 13/2/2000 Anthony Quinn
TLS A- 4/2/2000 Shirley Chew
The Washington Post A+ 5/3/2000 Marie Arana
Die Zeit A- (13/2001) Gabriele Venzky

  Review Consensus:

  Practically all found it interesting and at least in some ways engaging, and consider Mishra a talented writer. Main complaints are of excessiveness (in style, verbosity, characters, etc.), a lack of emotion, and regarding the meandering plot.

  From the Reviews:
  • "But while the novel has disappointments, it is redeemed to some extent by passages that genuinely move, such as his meditation on the life and release through death of his mother. And the novel gradually improves, once Mishra stops straining to prove his protagonist's ignorance." - Annie Greet, The Age

  • "The Romantics is a first novel of astonishing maturity. It has virtually none of the rawness of apprentice-work and a great deal of that calm authority which one associates with writers in their prime. I read it in a sitting, utterly absorbed in its characters, entranced by its lush prose, saddened, but never depressed, by its core of melancholy." - David Robson, Daily Telegraph

  • "There are poignancy and ideas here, but they need beauty, and this novel (...) is not a beautiful book. The prose is disappointing. The descriptions have the triteness of screenplay boilerplate, as if the author expected a movie director to evoke the scenes he sets." - The Economist

  • "Itís nice to see a Samar out of the confines of the moribund Hindi novel he is usually to be found in. Itís also very nice that Pankaj Mishra keeps his prose straight, and doesnít confound the reader with too many flowery ellipses and convoluted time-lines. But, at the same time, he doesnít give you enough from the inside, not of Samar, nor of the places he lives in." - Shubhra Gupta, The Hindustan Times

  • "Though slightly over-long and crowded with minor players, The Romantics is an intriguing combination of casual grace and emotional intensity, peppered with discreet social comment on caste, class, sectarian strife, the state of the nation. (...) Hearteningly different from the tricksiness and posturing of much recent Indian writing, this is a charming début, which makes a virtue of its studied simplicity." - Aamer Hussein, The Independent

  • "If much of cosmopolitan Indian writing has valorized the immigrant and the foreign land, then The Romantics is a celebration of the home and its forgotten world." - Amitava Kumar, The Nation

  • "In offering a well-rehearsed worthiness, a prose style that is intelligent, accomplished and aspiring of literary status, Mishra seems to have overlooked the dynamics of his plot. And in its mix of genres -- travelogue, memoir, history -- the book isn't always coherent. Yet his voice sustains such a calm and measured tone that you may want to read on regardless." - James Hopkin, New Statesman

  • "Although Mr. Mishra has clearly taken inspiration from Sentimental Education, he has managed to write a novel that showcases his own distinctive voice, a voice that fuses the lapidary precision of Flaubert with the meditative lyricism of Waugh's Brideshead Revisited, a voice that's alternately wry and ruminative, meticulous and expansive." - Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

  • "For all the poignancy of the moment, there is something labored about Mishra's language, its explicitness suggesting a first-time author too insecure to let the story speak for itself. This is a recurring problem in The Romantics. Although Mishra has a wonderful capacity for detail and psychological portraiture, his narrative is cluttered with thematic elucidation and explanations, many of them as dry as that "emanation . . . from unknown ancient times." " - Akash Kapur, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Mishra has a wonderful sense -- gentle and unemphatic, even diffident, but deadly at the same time -- of the daily actuality of things, for which his prose supplies the art and the satisfyingness which actuality so seldom puts there itself." - John Bayley, The New York Review of Books

  • "Mishra's evocations of Indian landscape and customs are vivid and thoughtful; his prose clean and unhampered and his descriptive passages to be savoured. Yet there is a sense that once you have finished this novel the impression it leaves is curiously evanescent." - Stephanie Merritt, The Observer

  • "(The Romantics) resists the jangling puns and verbal pyrotechnics of much recent Indian fiction. The language, pared and ruminative, achieves a quality of "serene melancholy" (...). Yet it also prevents us from truly engaging with the story. The narratorís too genteel voice fails to convey his isolation and sense of abandonment. (...) a skilful, enjoyable, but ultimately academic exercise." - Sukhdev Sandhu, Sunday Telegraph

  • "Its tendency to plod, when it ought to sprint, renders the story less compelling than it might have been: Mishra's attention to detail is scrupulous and his portrait of provincial Indian life feels authentically crowded and gritty, but the emotional punch we keep expecting never arrives." - Anthony Quinn, The Sunday Times

  • "As might be expected, ambitious ideas govern The Romantics. However, as a first novel, its ideas have not always been well served by its formal strategies, and, to pinpoint one weakness, the journey as a structural device has prompted too many set pieces of description. (...) (S)ubtly layered and compelling" - Shirley Chew, Times Literary Supplement

  • "(A) supernova in the wan firmament of recent fiction." - Marie Arana, The Washington Post

  • "Das Buch lebt von der Atmosphäre, auf den Ghats von Benares, in der Pseudospiritualitšt von Pondicherry, der klärenden Höhenluft des Himalaya. Wie mit kurzen, genauen Pinselstrichen gelingt es Mishra, diese Atmosphäre herzustellen. Das Buch ist eine Entdeckung. Allerdings wird man den Verdacht nicht los, der Autor habe es nur geschrieben, weil auch er endlich einmal ordentlich Geld verdienen wollte." - Gabriele Venzky, Die Zeit

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Pankaj Mishra has been ordained as the next Indian sensation. His 1995 travel book, Butter Chicken in Ludhiana (see our review), was immensely popular in India. His rapid ascent since has seen him move up from writing for Indian magazines to gracing the pages of the NY Review of Books and the TLS. Barely thirty, this, his first novel, was the subject of great interest from publishers abroad. German rights reportedly went for 60,000 US dollars, English and American rights for even more. (450,000 dollars is the price Random House is reported to have paid; if that was just for US rights ... well, it would be amazing if somebody hadn't lost their job over that.)
       Lots of ripples, but ultimately little splash: The Romantics is a fine little book, but ultimately undistinguished. Disappointingly it is an Indian novel that again focusses on India in Western eyes. The narrator, a young Brahmin named Samar, is Indian, and the book is set in India, but many of the other characters are Westerners and it is mainly against them that Samar measures himself. Mishra tries to strike a balance between East and West, contrasting the fates of the foreigners that come to India in search of something (enlightenment, adventure, even love) and the Indians themselves. There's something to this, but Mishra tries too hard -- the effort is sincere but ultimately unconvincing.
       The setting of the novel is largely in places that foreigners congregate to, places of exile, retreat and death: Benares (Varanasi), Pondicherry and Auroville, and the Tibetan center in exile of Dharamshala. There is an unreality to each of these places -- deathly Benares, the Auribindo Ashram in Pondicherry, the misplaced Tibetan city of Dharamshala. The outsiders who populate these places in the novel emphasize the feeling further.
       Samar is much like the author: both were born in 1969, studied at Allahabad University, travelled widely throughout India. The book begins with Samar reflecting on his time in Benares, starting in 1989. After graduating he moved to the city to prepare for the Civil Service examination, the "Mains" that are almost a rite of passage for every Indian university graduate. At twenty he is still too young to sit for the exam, and he spends the time in Benares preparing, reading, living a somewhat independent life. His mother is dead, his father has retired to the Auribindo Ashram.
       In the house where Samar rents a room there is also another boarder, the older Miss West, an Englishwoman. She is involved in a hopeless romance with a married man (which, bizarrely, is what keeps her in Benares ... though that is not where the man is). Miss West is Samar's first close introduction to the West, eponymously personifying it as she does. (Can Mishra get any more obvious here ?) A long-time resident of India, she is an outsider relatively at ease there -- though ultimately she too flees. (East is East and so on, and everyone winds up where they belong.)
       Through Miss West Samar is introduced to other Westerners. He is particularly drawn to the Frenchwoman Catherine, who is involved with the Indian musician Anand and preparing to take him back to France with her. There are also an odd assortment of travellers, passing through, hanging on, lingering and malingering. Many are searching -- the thing for Westerners to do in India.
       There are Indian contrasts: Samar's father, not quite as ready to absent himself from the world as he had initially anticipated, the family that owns the house where Miss West and Samar live (and their servant), and the lost soul Rajesh. Coming from humble origins Rajesh is a university friend of Samar, a strong personality who can't quite establish himself in the post-university world and winds up making an unusual career choice. (Though Mishra is at pains to stick to English novel-ideals the Bollywood movie influence seems here to have seeped through -- it's a tad too melodramatic, Rajesh's fall. To put it mildly. Trying to balance it Mishra has Rajesh heroically identify with Flaubert's Sentimental Education and Edmund Wilson's interpretation of it .....)
       (Note that much of the book -- and the character of Rajesh, and the Edmund Wilson-Flaubert story -- is apparently based on fact. Mishra's very good piece in The New York Review of Books, Edmund Wilson in Benares, details much of Mishra's own Samar-like experiences. A comparison between that fairly accomplished piece and this often awkward effort shows again that fiction based on fact is a dangerous thing to try.)
       Samar becomes close friends with Catherine -- too close, eventually. Catherine returns to France with Anand, a clearly doomed affair. Samar holds out hope but -- well, the centre cannot hold, things come apart. He also goes into exile. He becomes a teacher in Dharamshala, planning to stay only for a few months but then settling down there.
       The Romantics is a Bildungsroman, of sorts. Everyone is looking for something, Samar included. His Wanderjahre completed he comes to his inescapable conclusion, finding himself as it were. Call it Hindu fatalism fulfilled -- or the basic outline from Novel 101 -- but everyone winds up where they belong. Not necessarily better or happier or even wiser, but where they belong. If it weren't so simplistic in Mishra's presentation it might almost be satisfactory.
       Note also that Mishra's description of Benares here leaves it much tamer and more benign than he suggested in his earlier book, Butter Chicken in Ludhiana (see our review) -- out of deference for Western eyes ?

       Mishra's careful prose makes the book a decent read. Samar is an intellectual of sorts, reading Turgenev and Schopenhauer but never much bothering the reader with great complexity of thought. A few quotes from Flaubert and Wilson, that's as much as he'll force on the reader. Nevertheless, Mishra sketches emotion well, and even if the plot is heavy-handed and the characters simplistic one follows along with some curiosity. Certainly, the picture of India is superior to such Western efforts such as Billy Sutcliffe's Are you Experienced ? (see our review) -- a book that covers much of the same ground. Still, it is not enough.
       Westerners seeking "a passage to more than India" seem, by now, almost trite in fiction. An author has to do something more; Mishra doesn't. (The inclusion of Indians seeking similar passage is fairly familiar by now too.) And, while Mishra writes well, he doesn't write well enough to make up for his other failures.
       Clearly Mishra also has a Western audience in mind for this book. It could have been written by an Englishman (though not an American -- the prose is too refined). That is not a compliment. This is a subject and an approach that has been beaten to death and Mishra does little to revive it. A talented writer, he has written a book that aims to please. It might: people enjoy polished, simple tales in exotic locales.
       A bit more ambition, a bit more daring, and less of the obvious and Mishra could probably put together a real book. The talent seems to be there. The result, this time, isn't.
       A decent but ultimately unremarkable read. Recommended for those that like to think they are reading "literature" but don't want to face the real thing.

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The Romantics: Reviews: Pankaj Mishra: Other books by Pankaj Mishra under review: Other books under review that might be of interest:
  • Vikram Seth offering An Equal Music -- an English setting, but also romantic
  • William Sutcliffe asking Are you Experienced ?, another Indian adventure
  • See also the Index of literature from and about India

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About the Author:

       Indian author Pankaj Mishra was born in 1969. He attended Allahabad University and received his M.Phil from Jawaharal Nehru University. He served as chief editor of HarperCollins (India) and "discovered" Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things. He writes for The New York Review of Books and The Times Literary Supplement, among other publications, and has written a best-selling travel book and a novel. Such a precocious fellow.

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