Sunday, September 02, 2007

On VS Naipaul's A Writer's People

A shorter version of this piece on VS Naipaul's A Writer's People appears today in the Observer.

The path leading up to VS Naipaul's A Writer's People is littered with a writer's rubble: the debris, that of canonical figures knocked off their pedestals. Henry James: "that dreadful American man…the worst writer in the world actually." Thomas Hardy: "an unbearable writer…doesn't know how to compose a paragraph." Ernest Hemingway: "didn't know where he was, ever, really." EM Forster's A Passage To India: "it has only one real scene, and that's the foolish little tea party at the beginning." Jane Austen: "If the country had failed in the nineteenth century no one would have been reading Jane Austen."

These slashing denunciations provoked the question: if not these, then who were this writer's people? But as it turns out, Naipaul's reading has been as ambitious as the peregrinations through the decolonised world which marked the second phase of his career, after the success of his early novels. The essays of his book encompass figures as disconnected in time, space and reputation as Flaubert, Derek Walcott, Mahatma Gandhi, Anthony Powell, Polybius, Virgil, the Trinidadian writer Sam Selvon, and Naipaul's own father Seepersad. These are writers who have struck him in some way with their "ways of looking and feeling".

Naipaul's operative idea through the book is not so much prose style (though naturally he has his preferences there) but something larger, more numinous: a quality he calls "vision". For him how well a writer "sees" is what makes his work forceful, ageless, truthful. Those who see clearly bring to their work some original perception of the world, do not merely imitate established forms, treasure precision, avoid rhetoric. Bad writers are verbose and tend to over-explain; even worse, they are often intellectually dishonest.

For instance, Naipaul finds both good and bad things in Flaubert. He praises the style of Madame Bovary. Even though Flaubert's reputation is that of an ambitious, even self-flagellating stylist, the language of his great novel is "plain and clean and brief". Indeed, the continuous pleasure and surprises of its details are in stark contrast to the straining and languor of Flaubert's historical novel Salammb├┤. There the novelist's determination to parade the fruits of his research "sets up a barrier between the reader and what is being described". The writing rings false because it is too detached, overstated, theatrical.

Similarly, Naipaul bestows warm praise - a Naipaulian warmth still a bit cold by the general standard, but exceptional from Naipaul - on Gandhi. The Autobiography of Gandhi is "direct and wonderfully simple"; the book is a masterpiece. Even Gandhi's petitions to the authorities were "concrete and precise, without rhetoric". But it is important to note that Gandhi the writer is inseparable from Gandhi the man, the man who learnt from his labours to see.

Naipaul's writing here reprises and builds upon the chapter on Gandhi in An Area of Darkness (1964), the first of his three books on India. In that book, too, the emphasis is on Gandhi's powers of discernment, his vision: "He looked at India as no Indian was able to; his vision was direct, and this directness was, and is, revolutionary….He sees the Indian callousness, the Indian refusal to see." The centrality of this verb see in Naipaul's idea of a writer's work is echoed in a slightly different, more paradoxical, way by Proust, who also imagines the writer as a kind of optical intrument that clarifies both self and society: "Every reader, as he reads, is actually the reader of himself. The writer's work is only a kind of optical instrument he provides the reader so he can discern what he might never have seen in himself without this book. The reader's recognition in himself of what the book says is the proof of the book's truth."

Again, the young Gandhi, like the young Vidia, left the simple moral world and easy satisfactions of his provincial environment to voyage to England and seek a place in the world. Naipaul admires his diligence, his assiduous self-fashioning. Gandhi's travels, "first to England and then to South Africa, made him see that he had everything to learn. It was the basis of his great achievement." Naipaul compares Gandhi to the Buddha: "Both these men make wounding journeys." The reader may hear here the shadow of an allusion to Naipaul's own wounding journey from "the periphery to the centre".

As ever, Naipaul's sentences are tightly coiled and and muscular: they seem to be revealing something even when Naipaul is merely summarising. His recapitulation of the movement of a poem by Virgil - one that "celebrate[s] the physical world in an almost religious way…making us see and touch and feel at every point" - is as delectable as the poem itself. I enjoyed in particular section in which he recalls the years he supported himself by reviewing books. The concerns of this passage are mundane things like word counts, the ways of literary editors, factions and petty rivalries, the pleasure and the dread of seeing oneself in print - gossip that makes the day go by.

Of course, it is Naipaul's own "way of looking and feeling" - his pessimistic and controversial assessment of formerly colonised people confused and resentful, his depiction of an Islam as cloistered and oppressive as colonialism - that has made his work so controversial. A Writer's People also carries the breath of his olympian disdain, notably in the chapters on Walcott and Powell (the latter begins with this sentence: "This will not be an easy chapter for me to do"). But this is a thrilling tour through literature from a man who more than anybody else embodies what it means to be a writer.

An excerpt from Naipaul's chapter on Derek Walcott can be found here, an older essay called "On Being A Writer" here, and an essay on RK Narayan not included in this book here ("All languages have their own heritage, and English cannot easily escape its associations with English history, English manners, Shakespeare, Dickens, the Bible. Narayan cleansed his English, so to speak, of all these associations, cleansed it of everything but irony, and applied it to his own little India. His people can eat off leaves on a floor in a slum tenement, hang their upper-cloths on a coat stand, do all that in correct English, and there is no strangeness, no false comedy, no distance."). And I have always admired Naipaul's essay "The Universal Civilization", the rousing close of which I quote here:

It is an elastic idea; it fits all men. It implies a certain kind of society, a certain kind of awakened spirit. I don't imagine my father's parents would have been able to understand the idea. So much is contained in it: the idea of the individual, responsibility, choice, the life of the intellect, the idea of vocation and perfectibility and achievement. It is an immense human idea. It cannot be reduced to a fixed system. It cannot generate fanaticism. But it is known to exist; and because of that, other more rigid systems in the end blow away.
Lastly, here is Amitava Kumar's lovely essay from six years ago, "A Notebook For Mr.Biswas".

And some other posts on Nobel laureates: Orhan Pamuk, Saul Bellow, and Wislawa Szymborska.


equivocal said...

The guardian excerpt on Walcott stops in the mid-60s: is this the point where Naipaul also stops reading him closely? Just a question, because I haven't seen the whole essay.

For the mid-60s is precisely before DW's great jump as a poet, and before the first work that would reveal him as a major poet (Another Life, in 1973) and well before the tour-de-forces of his current, late, period. The early work that Naipaul is nostalgically taken with really does not amount to anything at all in comparison.

And in fact, DW continues to live a good part of the year in the West Indies.

Rohit Thombre said...

"...Narayan doesn't put his people on display." With a few words Naipaul manages to exalt Narayan and dismiss what he calls the 'chacha-chachi family saga' chaps.

Both Naipaul and Narayan, one feels have something in common, an unchanging gaze possibly, one that manages to be penetrating yet essentially limited at the same time. And one cannot rule out the possibility that maybe these two qualities are related.

Rohit Chopra said...

Dear Chandrahas,

I very much enjoyed reading the review. The book seems worth obtaining. It has been a long time since I read V. S. Naipaul, in part because I found the writing of the other Naipaul, Shiva, possessed of an empathy lacking in much of Sir Vidia's work. A House for Mr Biswas is an exception; the novel distils the essence of pathos. With the other writings, however, one is predominantly left with the impression of Naipaul's profound distaste for the Caribbean, India, Muslims and a dreadful, inescapable, sense of cultural, historical, and physical claustrophobia. Perhaps that might be their achievement. In any event, I should refrain from evaluative judgment on his work, since I still have much of it left to read.

I'd like to share some reflections on his views on other writers though. Naipaul's irascibility and damning judgments on writers of olympian reputation would seem to suggest, at the very least, an honesty on his part that is uncontaminated by mundane personal concerns. And his idea of vision as the touchstone of the writer's achievement echoes an older humanistic idea. For him, the value of literature transcends politics understood as the operations of power and the nexus of material calculation that is the stuff of everyday life. It is not unreasonable, then, to suggest that Naipaul sees himself as gifted with this vision, living a commitment to the writer's craft even at the risk of holding unfashionable and unpopular views.

But one may question this image, as part of a myth of self-fashioning. Naipaul is obsessed with, and obsessively relives, his biography. One also wonders about Naipaul's disinterestedness in commenting on, and evaluating, the work of Walcott.

As Caryl Phillips points out in this article in The Guardian, Walcott had reviewed Naipaul's work unfavorably. Walcott, like Edward Said and others, has also been outspoken about Naipaul's racism. And when Walcott won the literary nobel in 1992, Naipaul might well have thought -- quite logically-- that the nobel committee would not give it to another writer from the region for a long, long time. He beat the odds, in fact, by winning it in 2001.

Naipaul's views on Africans, Caribbeans, Muslims, and even Indians can only be termed racism. Naipaul gets away with it because he is a gifted and well-known writer, but there is a political economy at work here. Naipaul may well believe every word that he utters, but an intellectual from the third-world relentlessly savaging his own societies, Carribean and Indian, in the literary circles of the West will find a ready audience and supporters among those of conservative and liberal persuasion. The former, because they agree with the substance of his views and the latter, because they respect the right of freedom of expression and seek to encourage the contrarian and dissenter, especially of the third world variant.

For Borges, as Mario Vargas Llosa and Alberto Manguel both observe, the black man could not contribute anything of value to human civilization. Naipaul, regrettably, falls in this category too. As with Borges, it remains the blind spot in his vision. And since it is a blind spot, it cannot, of course, recognize itself or call attention to itself.

Perhaps Naipaul must valorize the universal because he has so overwhelmingly repudiated the local, in himself, and in itself.

Rohit Chopra

Ps: Here is another article about Naipaul's views by Maya Jaggi in The Guardian.

Unknown said...

Hey guys, thanks for the great comments. Unable to respond in detail because laid down with bad back - life's a wounding journey. Back soon.

equivocal said...

I think you're probably right, Rohit. Though it seems to me that VSN also has a slightly different thesis-- not that "the black man would not produce anything of worth" but that nothing of worth could come out of certain "half-formed locations" such as Trinidad-- a place that, to some extent at least, VSN has tried to edit out of his own biography.

Thus by telling DW's story in the way that he does, and freeze-framing at this particular moment, he is able to insinuate the subtle parable of a tremendously talented black man who amounts to nothing because he has been trapped in the cultural economy of the west indies; and who later finds recognition only in American universities (though ironically by this time, so Naipaul implies, DW has not been able to make good on his promise, and has lost his abilities).

What you say about VSN "valourising the universal" as a way of repudiating the local in himself is very interesting.

Would be grateful to get the source of that perspective on Borges from Vargas Llosa et al.