All About H. Hatterr and Hali, Known Editions
The most recent publications of G.V. Desani's two books are:
• All About H. Hatterr, Aleph Book Company, New Delhi, 2018.
• Hali and Collected Stories, McPherson & Company, 1991.
This section showcases the editions of G.V. Desani's two major works in roughly chronological order and includes a sampling of book cover comments as well as selected review comments which attended the publication. For front and back covers of all the editions please see the Book Covers page.
Aldor Press, London, 1948
G.V. Desani's first book, All About Mr. Hatterr, is not the easiest book to assess, but there is no need to offer any inducement. The subtle and vigorous phrasing alone, punctuated with wit, fantasy, allusion and invention, places it in a class by itself. Astonished by the book's uniqueness, the days' foremost men of letters were not stingy with their praise:
- T.S. Eliot: "... Certainly a remarkable book. In all my experience, I have not met anything quite like it. It is amazing that anyone should be able to sustain a piece of work in this style and tempo at such length."
- C.E.M. Joad : "... an original and remarkable book. It starts well and continues at the same level ... to my surprise ... the gusto, tempo and style all being maintained until the end."
- Edmund Blunden : "... Something remarkable here by this most curious and resourceful among writers. I can't think anybody who pays attention will miss that."
- Saul Bellow : "I didn't read many books while writing Augie. One I did read and love was All About H. Hatterr.... So, what about All About? I hate to be siding with T.S. Eliot... but what can you do?
Saturn Press, London, 1948
With the publication of Hatterr in 1948, G.V. Desani burst on the literary scene. The book was a succes d'estime on a prodigious scale, breaking all literary records for a book published that year.
Desani was compared to Runyon (Manchester Guardian), Sterne (The Spectator), "something between Joyce, Sterne, and Mark Twain," (The Tribune), and his book described by C.E.M. Joad as "Joyce and Miller with a difference — the difference being due to a dash of Munchausen and the Arabian Nights."
Described as the "... playboy of the English language." (Harold Brighouse in the Manchester Guardian) and, "... the Danny Kaye of literature." (March, Bombay), Desani entertained and amazed the literati of post-war Britain with a book in which, "English speech is laid open as if with a carving knife." (Bruce Bain). Hatterr, wrote Bain, is, "narrated in an astonishing farrago of language — puns, slang, pidgin, stage rhetoric, mock-Tagore. A literary hellzapoppin."
Saturn Press, London, 1950
In the Foreword to the first edition of Hali, T.S. Eliot wrote, "I consider Mr. Desani's Hali a striking and unusual piece of work. It is a completely different sort of thing from his Hatterr, and often the imagery is terrifyingly effective. It is, of course, as poetry that I take Hali ... Hali is not likely to appeal quickly to the taste of many readers and yet, in general, I find myself in agreement with what Mr. Forster says."
E.M. Forster, also in the Foreword, wrote, "I have no inner Knowledge of poetry, and so am diffident of my judgments on it, but Hali does strike me as genuine, personal, and passionate. I get a view through it, though I should find difficulty in describing what I see. It seems to treat life as if life were what death might be — perhaps that is the method in its wild pilgrimage, and why it keeps evoking heights above the 'Summit-City' of normal achievement. It depends upon a private mythology — a dangerous device. Yet it succeeds in being emotionally intelligible and in creating overtones."
Farrar, Straus & Young, 1951
From the front flap: "It is seldom that a publisher has a chance to present a book like All About H. Hatterr. In England, Mr. Desani's book has already entered the literary scene as a succes d'estime on a prodigious scale."
From the dust jacket back panel: "G.V. Desani ... is an Indian journalist and broadcaster, formerly a correspondent for The Times of India, Reuters and the Associated press.... He has written two other works, Hali, a long poem, and Gandhi, a biography."
Many reviews appeared. One available online appeared in Time Magazine under the title "Where Kipling Left Off", unattributed: "[Desani's novel] is an extended verbal jag that has already set London highbrows searching vainly for similes. ... All About H. Hatterr takes up where Kipling left off. But Kipling would hardly know the old locale when Desani gets through with it."
The Illustrated Weekly of India, 1964
The Illustrated Weekly of India reprinted Hali in full in 1964. Their introduction to the piece follows.
Since the publication of All About H. Hatterr, there has been considerable speculation about Desani's highly complex literary personality. Hali, Desani's second book, is a play, and is completely different from his Hatterr. It is a work of great force and beauty, with music of its own. Hali is the story of the predicament of man, and of his vision of good and evil. Hali is his name, but he is more than Hali; he is the shadow of man in extremity.
Hali reveals G.V. Desani as altogether a new personality, an artist of high integrity and poetic insight, with the gift of a strange yet ascetic eloquence. Prema Nandakumara, in an entry about Desani in the Encyclopaedia of Indian Literature, wrote, "...Hali... projects the inner drama of a 'passion' ... Hali's life — like everybody's — is a daily dialog with Death...."
Writer's Workshop, Calcutta, 1967
The Writer's Workshop, founded in 1958 by a group of Indian writers dedicated to the diffusion of creative writing in the English language, published Hali in 1967. From the cover:
When Hali first appeared in England in 1950, a chorus of distinguished praise greeted it.
- "Special kind of originality. Passion, and tenderness, and the apocalyptic diction is quite extraordinary." — Manchester Guardian
- "Curious and haunting poem." — The Times Literary Supplement
- "Hali is as near a work of genius as one can judge. We share Hali's conception of creation, of good, of evil; the cataclysmic experience of his Rooh: and we experience a great deal more we are not sure of.... It has a transcendental quality." — The Librarian
- "The reader will find himself lifted out of the recognized relationships of life in this world, of man with man, and with nature. Rooh — this figure remains abstract, in spite of the terrible account of her betrayal in this world of wars and lusts. She is a sort of Pascalian image, expressing love sublimated, universalized in time and space.... The whole experience might have been so formless. Mr. Desani has burned his way through that vagueness by sheer strength of spirit." — The Listener
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, New York, 1970
Anthony Burgess, in his introduction to this reissue of All About H. Hatterr, points out that G.V. Desani's novel, which first appeared in 1948, "...went underground and became a coterie pleasure," and is now, "confirmed after 20 years in the rank of modern classic." He goes on to describe the hero as, "...a grotesque autodidact who has built up a remarkable vocabulary with the aid of an English dictionary and a French and Latin primer. His vernacular sounds like Higher Babu.... I am honored and delighted to introduce a wonderfully heartening book to a new generation of readers."
On the reissue of Hatterr Charles M. Hagen in the Harvard Crimson wrote, "The glory of the book is its language ... If (Desani) hadn't stopped writing, he might have given us some masterful examples of a difficult genre, the comic novel. Whether or not he ever writes again, though, Hatterr will guarantee him a loyal group of readers."
The Bodley Head, London, 1970
"The Story of English", a nine-part PBS television series co-produced by McNeil-Lehrer Productions and the BBC, included remarks by Prof. P. Lal (University of Calcutta) citing Anthony Burgess on G.V. Desani's All About H. Hatterr, " ... confirmed in the rank of a modern classic."
In his introduction to the 1970 edition, Burgess had written about Desani the speaker, " ... Desani came to England, in fact, to demonstrate in live speech the vitality of the English rhetorical tradition brilliant in Burke and Macaulay, decadent in Churchill, now dead.... But it is the language that makes the book, a sort of creative chaos that grumbles at the restraining banks. It is what may be termed Whole Language, in which philosophical terms, the colloquialisms of Calcutta and London, Shakespearean archaisms, bazaar whinings, quack spiels, references to the Hindu pantheon, the jargon of Indian litigation, and shrill babu irritability seethe together. It is not pure English; it is, like the English of Shakespeare, Joyce and Kipling, gloriously impure."
On the reissue of Hatterr in the U.K., Patrick Anderson, writing for The Spectator, said, "H. Hatterr has his own splendid way with the lingo. To tread for a moment (but falteringly) in the stamp and dance of his style (strictly OHMS, all jets propelling, piste, schuss and pop goes the weevil) I would say that the velocity of his vocabulary rattled the gee-gee counter, that his phrases burgeoned like the Bengal rose, and that he came near to out-Babu-ing those fellow bamboozlers, Sterne and Joyce. ... The greatest achievement of this richly comic and profoundly humane work is its ability to combine pathos of this sort with picaresque adventure and linguistic extravagance.
Lancer Books, New York, 1972
On the occasion of the Lancer edition of Hatterr, Philip Toynbee wrote, "... a comic masterpiece ... an astonishing novel ... a marvelous book."
- Newsweek called it, "... a mischievous mulligatawny that reads like a collaboration between Mrs. Malaprop and Groucho Marx.... At the end you may not quite know where you've been, but you understand you've had a helluva trip."
- Time said, "... a bizarre and delightful voice ... to paraphrase would be travesty."
- And The San Francisco Chronicle commented, "One doesn't explain a work like this, or attempt to describe it. You simply let the language flow like the lyrics of a Calypso song, or a subdued show of stroboscopic lights."
The Lancer edition of Hatterr included an addition to the Preface by the author:
Indian middle-man (to Author): Sir, if you do not identify your composition a novel, how then do we itemize it? Sir, the rank and file is entitled to know.
Author (to Indian middle-man): Sir, I identify it a gesture. Sir, the rank and file is entitled to know.
Indian middle-man (to Author): Sir, there is no immediate demand for gestures. There is immediate demand for novels. Sir, we are literary agents, not free agents.
Author (to Indian middle-man): Sir, I identify it a novel. Sir, itemize it accordingly.
Penguin Modern Classics, Penguin Books, London, 1972
All About H. Hatterr first appeared in 1948 and was greeted with rare enthusiasm by T.S. Eliot and many other distinguished critics. It then, inexplicably, went underground to emerge 20 years later as a modern classic that defies classification. In a long critique-postscript, published for the first time in this edition, H. Hatterr's lawyer comments on the "autobiographical" with a gusto and brio fully worthy of his client. The entire 'holus-bolus' richly merits a place on the same shelf as Hyman Kaplan, Mr. Pooter, and the Good Soldier Scweik.
Penguin Books, King Penguin series, 1982
Reissued after 20 years in 1970, All About H. Hatterr, with an introduction by Anthony Burgess, and approximately 1,600 alterations and additions and a new chapter in the Lancer Books edition and Penguin Modern Classics and King Penguin editions has made publishing history. Not counting comment from Philippines, Canada and New Zealand, the book has earned 80 reviews in the States, Britain, India, and Australia.
- Philip Toynbee says of its author, "... He stands astride the two cultures, the Eastern and the Western, belonging to neither and therefore able to look at both with the incredulous eye of the outsider."
- And C.P. Snow wrote, "Mr. Desani is a writer of great originality, who is making a contribution ... all his own."
- In a signed review in Time, Christopher Porterfield spoke of All About H. Hatterr as " ... one of the genuine literary rarities, the lost-and-found masterpiece."
Arnold-Heinemann Publishers, Delhi, 1985
D.J. Enright in his A Mania for Sentences says of the language in Hatterr, "G.V. Desani is not reproducing so much as inventing or creating, basing himself on 'nature' but improving it quite distinctly. His hero, H. Hatterr, is 'biologically, fifty-fifty of the species', his father 'a European, Christian-by-faith merchant merman', his mother 'an Oriental, a Malay Peninsula-resident lady,' non-Christian, presumably of Indian extraction. His ancestry enriches H. Hatterr — just as being Jewish as well as Irish enriches Leopold Bloom — for it makes him heir to all the sages, or to many of them. His range of reference, both verbal and philosophical, is impressively wide, and he can quite feasibly mix Babu English with the vernacular of the old British Clubs, while also, as a not uncultivated feller, drawing on diverse languages and literatures from the continent of Europe and You Essay."
McPherson & Company, New York, 1986
Christopher Porterfield in his Time review of Hatterr entitled "Towering Babel": "Make no mistake, All About H. Hatterr is a philosophical novel that deals, however obliquely, with such eternal conundrums as love, free will, and appearance and reality. Its protagonist formulates no doctrines. But without ever quite losing his innocence, he does arrive at a visionary acceptance of all mortal matters as so much moonlight on the Ganges."
Michael Dirda, writer and editor forBook World, also has noted the serious aspects of Hatterr, "In fact, Desani's book, for all its good humor and linguistic zing, repeatedly builds toward authentic speculations about religion, death, the after-life and other transcendental matters. If not quite a divine comedy, All About H. Hatterr is certainly a spiritual one.
Said Philip Toynbee, "A comic masterpiece ... Desani's verbal invention is indefatigable, his linguistic sources inexhaustible." — The Observer
Now, for a mere $10, you can marvel at one of the great verbal extravaganzas in the English (more or less) language." — The Nation
A rewarding feast of fish and fowl, fiction and philosophy, hilarity and hope. — The New York Times
Desani is undoubtedly a master in the creative use of English — puns, parodies, colloquialisms — and an accomplished artist in the invention of a new language. — World Literature Today
Benjamin Slade ("beoram"), contributed "All About Who?, or S. Rushdie's Secret Guru" to dooyoo.co.uk web site.
McPherson & Company, New York, 1991
After Four Decades a New Book by G.V. Desani, Hali and Collected Stories. The present McPherson and Co., the fourth revised and considerably enlarged definitive edition, is published for the first time. The Collected Stories, which accompany it, as selected by the author, have not been offered as a collection before.
The following comments are selected from reviews of the McPherson and Co. edition:
G.V. Desani's Hali (the first of these strange tales and stories) was published in England five years after his comic masterpiece, All About H. Hatterr.
In spite of its fewer than 7,000 words, Hali attracted the most discerning readers and critics:
- "...Audacious and original speculation about human destiny...." — The Truth
- "...It is a delight to see the English language used with such delicacy and beauty...." — Beverly Baxter, Editor, The Daily Express
- "...With the publication of All About H. Hatterr, a new star swam into our ken. I have never seen in any modern work so close a resemblance with the great Sanskrit epics as in Hali...." — Sir Frank Brown, The Times editorial staff
- "...A real pleasure to acknowledge (Desani's) original contributions to literature. I have heard him described as a modern Rabelais, Sterne, and Mark Twain. Mr. Desani has certainly served to enliven for me the tedium of long sittings in the House of Commons...." — R.A. Butler, President, Royal Society of Literature
- "...Two books could hardly be more different. But I recognize the beauty of Hali...." — Sir David Ross, President, British Academy
- "...It is clear that the author has it in him to become the founder of a new school of spoken verse...." — John Coatman, North Regional Controller, the BBC
- "...A special kind of beauty, whose meaning unfolds with each fresh reading...." — Baldun Dhingra, Mass Communications, UNESCO
- "...I have read Hali with great admiration. It has literary qualities of a very high order, instinct with true poetic spirit. It is astonishing that the two books should be by the same author. In his second book Desani has left the first so far behind. At the same time, he possesses so much humor, gusto, such a keen sense of fun, and writes with such originality and ease, that if Desani should turn his genius in that direction, he might achieve great things as a writer of comedy...." — Viscount Samuel, President, Royal Institute of Philosophy
- "Between these two books there is a dual reaction of Desani to our age. I can understand this apparent divergence of satire and spirituality are two arms of one being and equally his poetic insight and comic burlesque of mundane things derive from his inner realization of transcendental values." — Lord Sorensen
- "...We are conscious of being in the presence of a writer more than commonly sensitive to the mystery of human existence...." — Christian World
- "...A writer of great originality who is making a contribution — neither English nor Indian — but all his own...." — C.P. Snow
- "A work of compelling beauty — a book to dwell with and ponder over. The fact that it is by the author of All About H. Hatterr is a proof certainly of his imaginative powers and his importance." — Geoffrey Whitworth, Governor, Stratford Memorial Theatre
- "...An incalculable figure. I can hardly believe that the same hand wrote All About H. Hatterr and Hali. Yet both bear the stamp of that originality of thought and expression, that refusal to be tied down to conventional forms where these prove inadequate vehicles of thought and feeling which together make up something very like genius.... A craftsman who is experimenting boldly and often successfully to do something that has never been done before — even by James Joyce...." — L.F. Rushbrook Williams, Fellow, All Souls', Oxford; Director, Bureau of Information
- "...Symbolizes the mystery of human existence...." — The Western Mail
- "It's magic." — The Queen
- "...Special kind of originality, passion and tenderness, and the apocalyptic diction is quite extraordinary...." — The Guardian
- "...An allegory which seems to spring from direct personal experience of religious vision.... A defiant reaffirmation of the principle of Love..." — The Tribune
- "...Curious and haunting poem...." — The Times Literary Supplement
- "...Its depth of feeling, hidden it may be in a symbolism of which the author is a far greater master than his reader can ever hope to be. But even a single reading will leave the reader with something of the treasure. It is poetry indeed...." — The Eastern World
- "...Grandiloquent strains of mysticism, and power...." — The Liverpool Daily Post
- "...A dream world, a world of seas, of flowers. The imagery is powerful and the language perfect...." — The Manchester Evening Chronicle
- "...In Hali, poetry reaches a new height..." — The Forum
- "...Starkly beautiful imagery..." — The Onlooker
- "...A spiritually triumphant journey through paradox, anguish, rebellion to complete renunciation...." — The Dublin Magazine
- "...A passion play with an ageless and universal reference..." — The Herald
- "...Very rarely when so many values are in the melting pot, can a critic (let alone dare) call a new work a work of genius. Hali is as near a work of genius as one can judge.... It has a transcendental quality..." — The Librarian
- "...Rooh, this figure remains abstract in spite of the terrible account of her betrayal. She is a sort of Pascalian image, expressing love sublimated and universalized. But here is a remarkable quality of the poem — that we see this Love, not as an abstraction, but a warm, endearing personality, enduring in the realm of death and enriching it with promises and hopes more concrete than anything in our material world. How the author does this it is impossible to say." — The Listener, the Journal of the B.B.C.
- "Hali is not anti-myth. It is, rather, a reshaping of traditional myth that offers new perspectives while preserving the old taxonomies. In Desani's corpus, the works seek to reaffirm and consolidate rather than question and destabilize. Ramanujam makes the insightful observation that, 'Desani's distinction is not that he is the creator of Hali, but that the writing of it transformed the writer'." — Chelva Kanaganayakam in Counterrealism and Indo-Anglian Fiction, Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2005.
Recently more commentary on the short stories in Hali and Collected Stories have been located. Here are some examples:
- "A dark fable of cultural circulation," from a review of Since a Nation Must Export, Smithers!, one of the short stories in Hali...., Andrew Goldstone, Export Duties, Arcade Literary Journal (digital), Stanford University, 2011.
- "(Desani) is one of Indo-Anglian literature's most idiosyncratic figures.... Among Desani's more intriguing creations (in Hali...) are the lama reborn as a chicken, the she-demon who keeps demanding "kya chahte ho (what do you want)?" of the man who has summoned her, the ganwaar humiliated by the town barber. But the author's elliptical style make none truly memorable ... On the whole, this volume is only for true believers," Shashi Tharoor, "Faint Echoes", India Today (intoday.in), June 20, 2013.
- "Set in India (the short stories) confirm (Desani) as a master of subtle metaphysical comedies, a fabulist, fantasist, moralist and keen satirist of life's follies, absurdities and ego trips," Publishers Weekly, Nov. 4, 1991.
Penguin Books India Ltd., New Delhi, 1998
First published almost 40 years ago, All About H. Hatterr is one of the most singular and celebrated of contemporary novels in the English language.
This comic 'autobiographical' of a young, ne'er-do-well Anglo-Indian's quest for enlightenment among seven sages is conveyed in a fantastically conceived style — an anti-Candid by way of Lewis Carroll and Groucho Marx.
With this definitive edition, All About H. Hatterr resumes ts rightful place as the most inventive intersection of Western and Eastern cultures.
The New York Review of Books, 2007
The publisher introduced the new edition with the comment, "Wildly funny and wonderfully bizarre, All About H. Hatterr is one of the most perfectly eccentric and strangely absorbing works modern English has produced." In a blog commentary entitled "Not Quite All About All About H. Hatterr the writer added, "I would say that Hatterr is one of the books we've had the most requests to republish. And it's always a pleasure to be able to respond to such requests with a simple, 'Done'."
Zukfikar Ghose, column for Dawn (dawn.com), The Growth of Orwell's 'Strange Phenomenon', Aug. 31, 2014, "A novel with any pretension to seriousness is written in a language that has its own peculiar ring that keeps resonating after its surface rendering of reality has been transmitted, so that the communicated cognition exceeds what is literally understood and the substance of the story conveys an intimation of a deeper knowledge. G. V. Desani’s All About H. Hatterr is one such novel. (It) enjoyed a temporary success and then fell into neglect from which it has not been rescued by attempts to reissue it, including an edition with a very fine Introduction by Anthony Burgess, who states that “it is the language that makes the book, a sort of creative chaos” and speculates whether its neglect was not due to “the difficulty of classifying the book.” Perhaps that’s a polite way of saying that Desani (1909-2000), a Kenyan-born Indian, could hardly be expected to write an original novel using English as it had never been used before. But that is exactly what Desani did. If we read it today without regard to the author’s nationality (in this supposedly enlightened age with its boastful espousal of diversity), (Hatterr) would be considered one of the original masterpieces of English literature produced during the period that includes Virginia Woolf, Joyce, Beckett and Flann O’Brien."
Ben Ehrenreich, reviewing for The Los Angeles Times, One Serious Feller (2007), "Hatterr is more readable by miles than (James Joyce's) Finnegans Wake, and a lot more fun."
Hua Hsu for The New York Sun under the title Passage From India: "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'. ... 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."
Robert Shuster, The Village Voice: "Imagine a schnockered Nabokov impersonating The Simpsons' Apu while reeling off tales of an Anglo-Indian Don Quixote, and you get some sense of Desani's wacko masterwork — a hilarious mix of slapstick misadventure and philosophic vaudeville, voiced in a manic Hindu-accented English so jagged and dense it makes you dizzy."
Guttersnipe Das' blogspot: "It was with great delight that I discovered that NYRB classics (has reissued) G.V. Desani's All About H. Hatterr. This book is near the top of my list of books that must not be allowed to disappear. ... For me (it) encapsulates the crazed gorgeous inventiveness of Indian English.... I am very grateful that other, more powerful, people are concerned about it as well."
Dan Zigmond, reviewing for The San Francisco Chronicle, "Desani's crazed epic became an ideal selection for the New York Review of Books Classics series. Founded in 1999 to rescue from oblivion what its editor Edwin Frank describes as 'good books, books it was hard to believe wouldn't have some sort of serious solid readership,' this astonishing collection recently published its 200th volume and shows no signs of slowing down."
Nilanjana S Roy, The Return of H. Hatterr, The Business-Standard, India: "Those who haven't come across Hatterr know of it in the same way one hears about a distant, eccentric, slightly disreputable but unstoppable family relative.... Perhaps as the New York Review of Books edition of Hatterr comes out, it might set off a trend in favor of resuscitating lost classics. Desani was skeptical of happy endings, but he did believe in gestures, preferably grand."
Richard Oram, Throwback Thursday – 1948's All About Mr. Hatterr, reviewing for Cultural Compass, Ransom Center, The University of Texas at Austin: "The ... Center recently acquired the papers of the late G.V. Desani.... Included is the original manuscripts of his most important work, the eccentric novel All About Mr. Hatterr."
All About H. Hatterr, Wikipedia: "As far back as in 1951," Desani later wrote, "I said H. Hatterr was a portrait of a man, the common vulgar species, found everywhere, both in the East and in the West."