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Growing up, I knew Edward Lear only as a writer of nonsense verse for children. It wasn’t until recently that I learned that he was also a painter who had lived most of his life outside his native England, keeping very detailed travel journals. And it wasn’t until I read Bengal, the Cold Weather 1873—A Dream of Edward Lear in India that I realized that his travels had taken him as far as Calcutta.

Upon rereading the corpus of Lear verse, which is full of Indian references, astute readers will realize that this reflects poorly on this reviewer, rather than on Lear’s willingness to allude to his Indian travels.

These travels form the setting of Bengal, the Cold Weather 1873, which, like a fantastical creature out of a Lear poem, does not fit neatly into any existing category. Is it a biography of Lear? No, it’s too short to be comprehensive, and besides, it’s a fictionalized account of his travels. Well then, is it a historical novel? Almost, but not quite; although it brings up the British Raj and the merchant princes of Calcutta that the Raj created, it’s more interested in Lear’s impressions of them. Is it an examination of Lear, in that case? Yes, but not primarily, because the focus does shift to other characters every now and then.

They are very remarkable characters, at that. There’s a morose Welsh hotelier with a mute Indian wife, an indolent Raja of Barakpur who tries to ascertain whether Edward Lear has any connection with the Shakespearean king, a rival painter who swims naked across the Hooghly, and a Baul with a voice as loud as an elephant’s. Lear, like cartoonist R.K. Laxman’s common man, reacts to all these with a bemused acceptance. He also happens to be too debilitated by epilepsy to impose his will anywhere.

But there are two important differences between Joe Roberts, the author of this book, and Laxman. Roberts brings his bemused protagonist to the centre of things, while Laxman’s common man was almost always on the margins. This brings us to the second difference: While Laxman could expose the nonsense of a situation in a single panel or caption of wit, Roberts is far more restrained, only bringing out the irony of the positions Lear finds himself in over 12 short chapters. There are no shining bon mots, no quotable lines that stick in your head, only a steadily building sense of absurdity that is both sad and funny.

Once I finished the book, I found myself grumbling that it was inadequate as a biography, and wondering if I could get a proper one. I also found myself wondering why the book had ended so abruptly—it seemed far too short, more like a play than a detailed novel. Despite all that, I liked the book for itself, purely for the wonderful way Roberts uses restrained writing to create the book’s poignant atmosphere.

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