A Writer's People: Ways of Looking and Feeling

V.S. Naipaul's keen, ruthless eye confirms that great writers make stern critics, says Radhakrishnan Nayar

March 13, 2008

Great writers can be impatient, quirky, rudely iconoclastic literary critics. It is almost a professional deformity.

They achieve greatness through a stern commitment to sharply individual visions of the world and methods of description and narrative. It leads easily to the idea that those who see and describe differently have nothing to offer. With many literary lions, the thought that it takes many sorts of books to make a rich literature doesn't sit easily.

One recalls Vladimir Nabokov dismissing Thomas Mann as a "tower of triteness", Balzac as a "fake" and Dostoevsky as a "double fake". Dostoevsky couldn't for the life of him see why people praised Anna Karenina. Tolstoy attributed Dostoevsky's fictional universe crowded with lunatics and psychopaths to the author's epilepsy: "He is sick and wants the whole world to be sick along with him." Going through Shakespeare's plays, Tolstoy gleefully noted the Bard's countless pitiable artistic blunders.

No eminent writer has indulged in the favourite sport of his tribe as savagely as V.S. Naipaul. He has opined that Jane Austen's novels are little more than gossip, that E.M. Forster was just a pederast touting empty riddles, and that there was nothing to be got from the writings about Dublin of that blind man living in Trieste, James Joyce.

But Naipaul is also, when he wants to be, a careful literary critic, full of startling insights. His sovereign contempt for authorities and schools is deeply refreshing. In this book of essays he is commenting on other writers - Flaubert, Anthony Powell, Evelyn Waugh, Derek Walcott, among others - but he is really telling us how he got the language and the ways of seeing that have made his books the most provocative and cruel literary analysis we have of the post-colonial situation.

Naipaul believes in looking hard at society. He has no use for books that fail to do so, even those of beloved friends. When starting out as a novelist in the early 1950s, he got crucial encouragement from Anthony Powell. Naipaul is vastly grateful, but says he had never read Powell's mightily reputed Proustian panorama of English society when his friend was alive.

When he did, he was surprised by how over-explained the famous novels were, how artistically clumsy - not to mention their provincial focus on a small genteel circle. Powell, Naipaul thinks, was incurious. His work took a certain conservative Britain for granted and was blind to what was changing the society so utterly after the war: such withdrawal from social change involves creative demise.

Much the same happened, Naipaul avers, to "the wicked" Evelyn Waugh: for all his derisive, mordant early novels, he too was unable to deal with post-1945 Britain. Eventually, ensconced like Powell in a country retreat, Waugh had nothing to write about but his own breakdown.

People often charge Naipaul with spurning his native West Indies in a snobbish attempt to be thought of as an "English" writer. It's an ignorant view. Naipaul's best books are about the West Indies; on that terrain he is at his toughest and most alert.

How West Indian he is can be seen in the richly evocative memoir here of the early career of the poet Derek Walcott. Naipaul dwells on the extraordinary fragility and unlikelihood of this Nobel laureate's emergence from a simple West Indian plantation society, without a complex society's rich inheritance of human achievements and literary antecedents.

Walcott had to fall back for his writing on the beauty of land, sea and people. Naipaul admires him for staying in this poor literary environment rather than getting his huge talent right away to the West. In the end, though, it was Western recognition that made Walcott's name internationally.

Naipaul loathes derived writing style, and one of the best things in this book is his mockery of the "writing-school writers" so prominent these days, especially in the proliferating crop of Indian writers in English.

They are mainly guided by imitation, he says; their material doesn't come out in its own way. They assume they must decide whether to be magically realist like Latin Americans, or go in for wordplay in an Irish way, or else be German. They talk it over with the writing-school instructor, Naipaul sneers. The result? "Chinese and Indian and African experience sifted down into the writing-school mill comes out looking and feeling American and modern. These writing-school writers are all given the same modern personality, and that is their triumph."

In contrast, we get a picture of how real writers ought to start: Naipaul stands at a bookstall in the early 1950s, reads a few pages of Somerset Maugham's The Painted Veil and puts it back: "Not because Maugham was bad. My material was too far away from his; I had to adhere to it and do the best I could do with it, in my own way."

It's the kind of fiercely independent perception that makes a few pages of Naipaul's literary criticism more valuable than many ponderous conventional volumes.

A Writer's People: Ways of Looking and Feeling

By V. S. Naipaul
ISBN 9780350485241
Published 7 September 2007

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