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A Writer's People: Ways of Looking and Feelingby V. S. Naipaul
"A Writer's People is amazingly concise, as Naipaul can be, but also wide-ranging and tightly packed, a kind of literary Rubik's Cube, made up of small, exquisitely beveled pieces, with no obvious points of contact, that he manages to fit together effortlessly." Joseph Lelyveld, The New York Review of Books (read the entire New York Review of Books review)
Synopses & Reviews
Born in Trinidad of Indian descent, a resident of England for his entire adult life, and a prodigious traveler, Nobel laureate V. S. Naipaul has always faced the challenges of "fitting one civilisation to another." Here, in his first book of nonfiction since 2003, he gives us an eloquent, candid, wide-ranging narrative that delves into this sometimes inadvertent process of creative and intellectual assimilation.
He discusses the writers he read early on: Derek Walcott, Gustave Flaubert and his own father among them. He explains how Anthony Powell and Francis Wyndham influenced his first encounters with literary culture. He looks at what we have retained — and forgotten — of the world portrayed in Caesar's The Gallic War and Virgil's Aeneid. He illuminates the ways in which the writings of Gandhi, Nehru and other Indian writers both reveal and conceal the authors and their nation. And he brings the same scrutiny to bear on his own life: his years in Trinidad; the gaps in his family history; the "private India" kept alive in his family through story, ritual, religion and culture; his ever-evolving reaction to the more complicated and demanding true India he would encounter for the first time when he was thirty.
Part meditation, part remembrance, as elegant as it is revelatory, A Writer's People allows us privileged insight — full of incident, humor and feeling — into the mind of one of our greatest writers.
One of the perquisites of achieved greatness might be the freedom to let go, to relax from the exertions that had so much to do with getting there. This natural tendency, less charitably known as coasting, could help explain why V.S. Naipaul's recent works — the novel "Magic Seeds" and two collections of essays, "Literary Occasions" and now "A Writer's People: Ways of Looking and Feeling" — feel... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) so un-Naipaulian. The force that propelled such novels as "A Bend in the River" and "Guerrillas," as well as scourging documentary nonfiction like "Among the Believers," has slackened. In place of the Nobel Prize winner's signature directness, we find an insistent digressiveness. Naipaul's voice too often sounds querulous, unable or unwilling to build toward an indictment. It has become a kind of distracted grumbling. "A Writer's People" comprises five essays, reflecting on, in sequence, a cluster of writers from the Caribbean; Naipaul's complicated friendship with novelist Anthony Powell; the Indian "way of seeing"; Flaubert's "Salammbo" and the historical imagination; and, again, India, in particular its difficulty surmounting its colonial past. The first piece, "The Worm in the Bud," is emblematic of his current discursive mode of essaying. (To be fair, we should keep in mind that at its origins, in Montaigne, the essay form was nothing if not discursive.) Naipaul begins by looking back to 1949, to the appearance in his circumscribed world (he was born in Trinidad of Indian descent) of a small book by an ambitious poet from nearby Saint Lucia named Derek Walcott. He remarks what a splash, relatively speaking, the book made, and in the process reveals exactly how provincial the Caribbean literary universe was. When he himself read Walcott's work a few years later, he beheld his home-world and was enthralled: The "sight of fishermen, silhouettes in the fast-fading dusk ... was something we all knew. Reading these poems in London in 1955, I thought I could understand how important Pushkin was to the Russians, doing for them what hadn't been done before." This is as generous as the author gets. So far as he can see, Walcott more or less realized his greatness in that early work, and for the rest of his career, which of course includes the 1992 Nobel Prize in Literature (Naipaul got his Nobel in 2001), he looked to fit himself to more cosmopolitan templates. Naipaul's implication is that the vast output that followed was a denouement, in some way even a betrayal, of what was greatest in the poet. Nowhere does he attempt to reckon with Walcott's changing ambitions. It is almost as if Naipaul cannot allow his fellow islander a place by his side on the dais. Much of the rest of that first essay looks at the frustrations and failures of what might have been comparably worthy careers, including those of the Guyanese novelist Edgar Mittelholzer, the Trinidadian writer Samuel Selvon and Naipaul's own father. The latter, a newspaper correspondent with literary aspirations — his son drew his portrait in his great early novel "A House for Mr. Biswas" — misdirected his gift of observation and evocation by pitching his stories toward what he saw as the requirements of the larger (American and English) market, outfitting them with trick endings in the O'Henry mode. This is the theme throughout: the overpowering of natural or indigenous ways of looking and feeling by the dominant, or imperial, expectation. Naipaul sees cultural self-subversion at work in the writers mentioned, but he also marks it as the impulse that undermines not only the Indian diaspora in his native Trinidad but also the developing culture of India after independence. In "Looking and Not Seeing: The Indian Way," he anatomizes an island population that in the space of a generation had cut itself off from its memories. For Indian emigrants, the homeland very quickly became myth, unreal, at least until travel became possible after World War II. "Little by little," Naipaul writes, "the India of myth was chipped away, and India became a place of destitution from which we were lucky to have got away." That destitution is the subject of his two searing books of reportage, "India: A Wounded Civilization" and "India: A Million Mutinies Now." The rest of "A Writer's People" is likewise bent upon the piercing of illusions, particularly the concluding essay, "India Again: The Mahatma and After," which makes the case that Gandhi owed his success in part to the credulity of the Indian people, who projected their great hunger for coherence upon what was in fact a grab bag of policies and personal traits: "He was full of bits and pieces he had picked up here and there." The people saw what they wanted to see in his spinning wheel, his poor man's garb. And for Naipaul this is yet another instance of the refusal to see the truth that has marked the Indian way of looking, and that has fueled his own insistently compensatory agenda. Sven Birkerts is the author of eight books, most recently "The Art of Time in Memoir: Then, Again." He is the director of the Bennington Writing Seminars. Reviewed by Sven Birkerts, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"This is an important coda, on a lifetime of 'seeing'....For Naipaul, 'seeing' with clarity is all-important to both constantly remaking the world through literature and to fashioning a history for oneself....Brilliant." Amit Chaudhuri, The Guardian
"Naipaul's latest collection of essays, A Writer's People, is essential reading for those who admire his work and want to understand it further. But there is much there for any enquiring mind, as it offers the insights and observations on literature, history and cultural sensibility of an honest and truly global thinker." The Evening Standard
"[Naipaul's] writing...gleams with brilliance. Even as you recoil from his judgments, it's impossible not to admire the prose." Seattle Times
"[I]t is [Naipaul's] lifelong journey away from Trinidad that is the heart of the collection." Boston Globe
About the Author
V. S. Naipaul was born in Trinidad in 1932. He went to England on a scholarship in 1950. After four years at University College, Oxford, he began to write, and since then has followed no other profession. He has published more than twenty-five books of fiction and nonfiction, including Half a Life, A House for Mr. Biswas, A Bend in the River, Magic Seeds and a collection of letters, Between Father and Son. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2001.
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