All About G.V. Desani’s All About H. Hatter

In the NY Sun, Hua Hsu on my favorite 20th century novel in the vernacular, sort of:

Few novels open with warnings, and courageous is the writer who opens with a warning about how the 300 pages to follow never cohere into a novel, but mingle instead at the rank of a “gesture.” (This cautionary note did not appear in the original edition, but it accompanied editions from the 1970s on.) It is a perfect way to enter Desani’s profoundly self-aware world, one in which the language indeed gestures at its own playful impurity, its own lack of regard for etiquette. The sentences aren’t instruments of the plot. Their odd juxtapositions and careful rhythms index a different story, coalescing off the page, of a brilliant writer embracing the once-pejorative identity of the mongrel-linguist with style, pride, and wit: “I write rigmarole English, staining your goodly godly tongue, maybe: but, friend, I forsook my Form, School and Head, while you stuck to yours, learning reading, ‘riting and ‘rithmetic.” It’s the language of someone who has mastered the rules, just for fun. But submit to them? As a footnote midway through the book blurts: “Don’t be ridick!”

Throughout his quest, Hatterr makes frequent reference to the fine tradition of British literature. But his self-deprecating kowtowing obscures his sly disrespect for traditions and protocol. Early on, Hatterr tries to size himself up against one of the language’s greatest talents. “To hell with kittens, I am not literary, I admit you that. But I tell you, man, I have seen more Life than that feller Shakespeare! Things happen to me with accents on ’em! If I were to tell all, right from the au commencement to the la terminaison of my life-story, I should like to see some honest critic pronounce me an inferior to Shakespeare!” Given the situations Hatterr will soon find himself in, it’s not an unreasonable boast. And yet Hatterr’s lecture swells and swells until it reaches its simple and true punch line: “If you want to remain sane, man, keep off the libido!”