A Writer's People: Ways of Looking and Feeling
by V. S. Naipaul
Reviewed by Joseph Lelyveld
New York Review of Books
Thirty-two years ago, V.S. Naipaul went to India for this paper to write about the collapse of its post-independence experiment in democracy. Nehru's daughter, Indira Gandhi, had declared an emergency and suspended the constitution. Naipaul took this to be a major turning point, and possibly a salutary one, for a sick culture in need of shock therapy. One of his articles explored the notion that Indians experience the world in ways drastically different from those of most Westerners: that Indians were typically more self-absorbed, less observant, more instinctive; in other words, that they were ill-adapted, in their basic consciousness, to the modern world. "India: A Defect of Vision" is what he called that essay.
Naipaul's latest volume is a set of variations and meditations on that theme. One of its chapters is called "Looking and Not Seeing: The Indian Way," but this time, in his characteristic preoccupation with what his subtitle terms "ways of looking and feeling," he journeys far beyond the subcontinent. 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. At one moment, we go from Nehru's thoughts about Gandhi to the author's mother and her experience on her first visit to their ancestral village. A few pages later, we're into Flaubert and the embrace of concrete French realities that made possible the glorious, seemingly transparent second chapter of Madame Bovary, which then is contrasted to the overblown failure of Salammbo. By a natural progression that brings us to Polybius, only a couple of steps away from Virgil and, leaving the Aeneid aside, his poem "Moretum," which Naipaul celebrates for its grasp of the physical details of life in this world. Then we're back on the Gangetic Plain in 1925, observing the young Aldous Huxley observing Gandhi at a political gathering.
Something deeper is going on here, we gather, than free association. The prospector is digging along a vein he has worked before. Much of it still sparkles. The subtitle declares his purpose more directly than the title. The "writer's people" are living and dead, ancient and modern, Eastern and Western, encountered in life or on the printed page. All that connects them, finally, is his intense interest in their "ways of looking and feeling" as an index, finally, to the unfolding of his own. At seventy-five, Naipaul traces the map of his own intellectual and artistic journey, implicitly asking how he escaped the provincialism of island life in the Caribbean ("small places with simple economies" breeding "small people with simple destinies") and the equally provincial trap of literary London.
The youth who came from Trinidad to the metropolis "in a cloud of not-knowing" picks up negative lessons from writers he encounters and reads. He acquires "an ability to discard" highly esteemed literary models that don't speak to him, or that speak to him in a distant or condescending way, emphasizing his status as an outsider. He learns "that as a writer I was on my own." Or as he twice puts it, in slightly different contexts, "there is no such thing as a republic of letters" where writers of different sorts meet on an equal footing to advance one another's efforts.
He became a writer, Naipaul testifies, when he got past "debilitating playacting at the writing table" and promised himself that he would seek "to do a narrative only out of simple, direct statements." He thus made "the leap from university essay-writing to writer's writing," which is more than the attainment of "a special language and rhythm" or the narrative tricks taught in American writing schools. It's also about how the world is seen in all its actuality, the subject of this book. So what we have here is a mixture of genres: a meditation on art and life, with a strong dash now and then of personal memoir marked by the restless, sometimes withering, intelligence of its author; also a self-congratulatory subtext that's seldom on the surface but often hard to miss.
Somehow the mix remains bracing, surprising. Naipaul is never guilty of the overexplaining he disparages in the fiction of a departed friend and onetime sponsor, Anthony Powell. He remains bracing even when the reader recognizes that he's traversing old ground. He writes about Nirad Chaudhuri, author of An Autobiography of an Unknown Indian, a sort of Bengali Mencken he first discussed in The Overcrowded Barracoon in 1972; about Gandhi, reexamining themes and incidents he first examined in An Area of Darkness in 1964 (and several times since); about Vinoba Bhave, a Gandhi disciple he first derided as the Mahatma's "mascot" in India: A Wounded Civilization in 1977. None of these discussions involves a radical reinterpretation or an acknowledgment of past misjudgments. They are simply there as part of the intellectual furniture of his life. Yet none can be fairly dismissed as a rehash. Like a polished lecturer who remains actively engaged with his subject though he has given the course for years, Naipaul succeeds in writing as if he's coming upon such material for the first time.
He's more likely to surprise -- and dismay -- when he writes about contemporary writers with whom he has crossed paths, or viewed from a distance. Here any tendency he has to generosity or admiration is kept pretty well under wraps. His fellow Caribbean Nobelist Derek Walcott is portrayed as a writer who "exhausted the first flush of his talent" without ever really finding a consistent voice. According to Naipaul, the poet had gone stale by the time American universities rode to his rescue, hailing him as an authentic representative of a culture that had nearly done him in. As a memoirist, Naipaul now presents himself as brutally honest about his own formative experiences as a reader seeking models among the slim pickings available to him when he was growing up in Trinidad. By this reckoning, Walcott was an inspiration before he became a disappointment.
What we seem to be witnessing is an episode in an ongoing duel between the two laureates -- the lyric poet who celebrates his origins, the writer of masterly prose given to portraying himself as having risen above his by dint of devotion to his craft. Twenty-one years ago, reviewing The Enigma of Arrival in The New Republic, Walcott called Naipaul "our finest writer of the English sentence." To make his point, he went so far as to set two Naipaul sentences about the English summer as a stanza of pastoral verse. "Gentlemen," the poet then wrote, without apparent irony, "we now have among us another elegiac pastoralist, an islander himself, the peer of Clare and Cobbett, not only in style but in spirit." Then, exchanging his pen for a rapier dipped in ink, he went on: "And if the cost to that spirit has meant virulent contempt toward the island of his origin, then rook, shaw and hedgerow, tillage and tradition will soothe him."
It's impossible to know whether Naipaul has been brooding on that review all these years or, less likely, has just recently come upon it. In any case, portions of the present volume shape up as a response. Where Walcott accused him of willfully ignoring his connection, if not debt, to other West Indian writers, Naipaul writes here about Walcott and other writers less well known in the wider world: Edgar Mittelholzer, Samuel Selvon, and his own father, Seepersad Naipaul. He writes with seeming affection, grace, and a touch of sadness, for it's clear that he views each of them, from a distance of many years, as having failed to liberate his imagination from the claustrophobia of the colonial maze. Though he doesn't say so explicitly, he can be read as declaring that these were not his models. In another instance, brutal honesty comes across as disdain or, it almost seems, payback for some unstated ancient slight. This is when he takes what seems a calculated sideswipe at Philip Larkin (characterized here only as "the minor poet Philip Larkin"). It's hard not to wonder what brought that on. An unworthy suspicion intrudes. Could it be that Larkin has become a target simply because he was warmly, indeed lovingly, praised in these pages by Derek Walcott, a couple of years after his profoundly mixed review of The Enigma of Arrival? ("No other poet I know of makes the reader an intimate listener as well as Larkin does," Walcott wrote.
In a similar vein, in the space of a few sentences, Naipaul dismisses a whole generation of Indian novelists writing in English as belonging "more to the publishing culture of Britain and the United States" than to India, each turning out a fictionalized account of his or her extended family "with great characters, daddyji and mamaji and nanee and chacha" (the latter two meaning maternal grandmother and father's younger brother)â€”all according to the narrative prescriptions of the despised writing schools. It's not difficult to think of Indian novels that might be covered by this blanket indictment. "The books are published by people outside, judged by people outside, and to a large extent bought by people outside," he writes, meaning outside India. Is that any way to shape a national literature? he asks. It's hard to tell whether this indictment is meant to include the Salman Rushdie of Midnight's Children, the Anita Desai of Baumgartner's Bombay, or the Rohinton Mistry of A Fine Balance, arguably the most searing work of fiction independent India has produced in English. Naipaul doesn't stoop from the pinnacle he has achieved to mention such obvious names, or any names. It's as if the whole generation is beneath his notice.
The imbalance between honesty and generosity is most painfully exposed in his reminiscences of Anthony Powell, an established novelist who was, he acknowledges with something like gratitude, especially kind to an unknown immigrant trying to find a foothold in literary London. Powell invited him for drinks and for country weekends, and introduced him to editors when Naipaul was only beginning to be noticed as a writer of book reviews. The younger man was twenty-five, the older fifty-two when the friendship began in 1957. It lasted for thirty-seven years, until 1994, by Naipaul's account. Then the aging novelist seemed to say a final goodbye, though he still had six years to live.
Was he tired of seeing people in general, or Naipaul in particular? Or did Naipaul misinterpret his meaning? In any case, when Powell died, Naipaul readily accepted an invitation to talk about his friend in a television interview, only to discover that he had little or nothing to say about his writing. He had looked at only two of the ten novels that make up Dance to the Music of Time. Moved then to read them consecutively -- he got through six -- he was "appalled" by what he found. "There was no narrative skill, perhaps even no thought for narrative." The failure is "extraordinary." Discovering that he couldn't stand his friend's fiction was "a piece of Ibsen-like horror." Finally, Naipaul wonders why Anthony Powell bothered to write.
It's not necessary to consider Powell an English Proust, or to be overly fascinated with British life and letters from the end of World War I through mid-century, to find this harsh. Naipaul, who titles his chapter on his departed friend "An English Way of Looking," appears to locate Powell's supposed failure in his insularity, his total absorption in circumscribed strata of a society "at once diminished and over-written-about." In his view, Powell failed to engage the wider world the way Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh, neither of whom he particularly admires, did (the way, though he doesn't say so, the author of A Bend in the River and Guerrillas obviously did). He seemingly finds his friend's work so uninspired and plodding that he can't bring himself to write about it in the detailed way he writes about Salammbo.
Of course, Powell does have virtues. He may "over-explain" but he's more than a chronicler of social change as it affects a random collection of graduates from a British public school. What fascinates him is our inability really to know one another and, often, even ourselves, which is why, in this novelist's view, human beings can be so surprising. Powell can be as detached as a naturalist studying the behavior of eels. But like the naturalist, he has a passion for his discoveries. "So often one thinks that individuals and situations cannot be so extraordinary as they seem from outside," his narrator remarks in At Lady Molly's, "only to find that the truth is a thousand times odder." That sense of wonder, which sustains his fiction, is missing from Naipaul's account of his enterprise.
Not "over-explaining" is part of Naipaul's own credo as a writer. His strategy requires showing, which is laudable. But sometimes here, explaining just a little, he sounds Delphic. "If we have to define modern sensibility in literature, we can, I suppose," he writes, "say that it is one that in its assessment of the world brings all the senses into play and does so within a frame of reason." The "I suppose" expresses his distaste for pedantic exposition. So does the fact that he doesn't develop his definition any further. The thought stops with that one sentence, which he then applies to Virgil and Latin writers who came later as the empire declined. What he notes there -- and brands as "the classical half view" -- is their tendency to circumvent harsh realities, holding their senses in check rather than describing what was plainly before their eyes. Caesar says simply that his prisoners were put to death in Gaul without describing how six thousand disarmed soldiers could be slain at close quarters. Cicero witnesses the slaughter of twenty elephants at Pompey's games in 55 BC without dwelling on the reaction of the crowd, which was horrified, according to Pliny the Elder. Like Caesar, Cicero "preferred to use words to hide from what he saw," Naipaul comments. "He preferred to have the half view."
"We go back to India," he then writes, kicking off the next chapter. Given, at best, a half view of the connection between ancient Rome and modern India, we are left to rely on our own surmises. Here Naipaul dwells on what he takes to be Gandhi's failure, in the end, to leave a coherent intellectual legacy. "There was no completeness to him," he writes. "He was full of bits and pieces he had picked up here and there....He was a man of many small causes." Finally, Gandhi is described as "sunk in his mahatmahood."
Naipaul is rewriting and repeating himself. Three decades ago he wrote that Gandhi "declined into a long and ever more private mahatmahood." His discussion this time dead-ends on the theme of intellectual confusion and bankruptcy. Then it went further. In India: A Wounded Civilization, Naipaul describes the old man's strenuous efforts in the last year and a half of his life to turn the tide of mass Hindu-Muslim murder in East Bengal by trekking from village to village at the time of the partition of what had been British India. "He is magnificent," the younger Naipaul wrote, stepping back from the portrait he'd just sketched.
Of course, by the end of his long life, he could have been magnificent and confused. He was certainly out of sync with the national movement that he, more than anyone else, had defined and led to the goal of independence.
On our own surmise, it's fair to pursue one of Naipaul's implicit comparisons: Gandhi, like Caesar, was an actor in this world, after all, a politician as well as a thinker and, yes, he was murdered. He couldn't will Hindus and Muslims to get along, though he tried; similarly, he couldn't move most of his followers to pay much more than lip service to his crusade against untouchability, his effort to abolish this peculiarly Indian curse in the villages where Indians live as well as on statute books of the new government. The constraints he faced had more to do with the realities of India than flaws in his worldview.
By mid-century, Naipaul tells us, Gandhi was "out of date, the various pieces of his thought irrecoverable." Gandhi himself might not have been surprised. "There is no such thing as 'Gandhism,'" he once wrote.
I do not want to leave any sect after me. I do not claim to have originated any new principle or doctrine....Those who believe in the simple truths I have laid down can propagate them only by living them.
The sharp edge of Naipaul's earlier writing on India had much to recommend it; in particular, his arresting portrait of the Gandhi who returned home after living in England and South Africa and "looked at India as no Indian was able to." In the directness of his vision, his readiness to engage issues of caste and public sanitation, Gandhi "was and is revolutionary," the earlier Naipaul said. That Gandhi vision involved true looking and seeing, the standard Naipaul here raises, only now it hardly seems that he himself has taken a fresh look at the entrepreneurial new India that has recently become a darling of foreign investors with its outsourcing centers, software developers, gated communities, luxury cars, nuclear bombs, Hindu revivalism, and continued mass poverty. Having concluded that Gandhi has been out of date for half a century, he doesn't ask what Gandhi would have made of this confusing mix. It's not a pointless or useless question.
But then this is not really a book about India or Gandhi. More than anything else, it's a book about its author, still panning for the pure gold of a clear and honest vision firmly grounded in this world.
Joseph Lelyveld is a former editor and correspondent of The New York Times. He is the author of Omaha Blues: A Memory Loop.