A House for Mr. Biswas, Half a life, A Bend in the River, Magic Seeds. The list can be made endless with famous titles from the pen of V. S Naipaul (Nobel Prize 2001). I always try reading at least one Nobel Prize winner per year, if not necessarily by the latest winner. Why? For the same reason the winners of the Man Booker Prize or the Pulitzer are safe buys: they’re good. Sometimes the Nobel Prize goes to authors a little too highbrow even for me, but then I avoid them for as long as I can. When I finally confront my fear of, say, the poetry of Kenzaburo Oe (Nobel Prize 1994), I always fall flat of admiration. In short, you don’t get a prize like the Nobel Prize or the Pulitzer if you’re not one of the best in your field. Basta cosí.
Having stumbled upon A Writer’s People by chance in an American bookshop in Amsterdam, I decided to give it a go. The titles I mentioned above are some of the ones one is expected to start with, to get the width and complexity of Naipaul’s authorship. However, I felt more inclined to get to know some of his thoughts on writing and what might shape us as writers before I dived into the complex world of, say, Mr. Biswas.
The under-title of the book, Ways of looking and feeling, was what turned my head when I stood in the narrow aisle of the bookshop the other week. That’s one of the things I have always found interesting when it comes to different authorships. What might trigger this particular authors imagination? What experiences shaped his or her being into wanting to escape into a fictional world? Is it memories of childhood? Is it experiences as an adolescent? All of the above, perhaps, and much more. For this I don’t want to read a full-blown thousand page tome autobiography, that’s for a day when I feel like reading about an authors personal history. Autobiographies tend not to deal with ideas or perceptions in any deeper sense. And that’s what I like to read about. At least I did when I bought this book.
Divided in five parts the roughly two-hundred pages stretches from Naipaul’s native Trinidad to his adopted new home in England, via his time as a student in Oxford in 1950. It touches upon how the street outside the house where he grew up in Trinidad created the starting point of his first novel, how he felt completely at sea when he arrived in Oxford, how the food was bland and the climate cold. How he learned how to cope. The two chapters that touched me the most was An English way of looking and India Again: the Mahatma and After. These two chapters are full of zest, disdain, disbelief and almost romantic hope. Naipaul uses his trade mark muscular sentences and does not duck, nor take cover, for any subject or view however controversial.
The British novelist Anthony Powell (1905-2000) was one of Naipaul’s most important friendships, tied in the late 1950s, as a first-novel-published struggling writer working for BBC and various news papers and magazines. Powell, literary editor at Punch at the time, had printed a very good review of Naipaul’s first novel and when they met in a bar on Fleet Street in London, Naipaul had thanked him from the bottom of his heart. The remark from Powell, that “whatever its flaws, a writer’s first novel had a lyrical quality which the author would never again recapture”, stayed with Naipaul for over fifty years as “one of the highest critical appreciations” he’d met. Meetings like these, with important literary figures and intellectuals, was what helped him keep at it as a young, struggling writer. Also the lyric quality in this chapter is beautiful, the descriptions of a post-war London and Oxford. The descriptions of the BBC Studios and the magazine offices on Fleet Street in it’s heyday is a fascinating read in itself.
The last chapter, India Again: the Mahatma and After, is a sharp criticism of India and how it has handled its post-colonial heritage and the unquestionable values of the Indian intellectuals. There hasn’t been many, truth be said, but Naipaul concentrates on criticising how Indians themselves have laughed at the few intellectuals they’ve had and gone on with their business, literally, just concentrating on making money and escaping poverty. Not hard to understand, true, but Naipaul says that with doing so the country will keep struggling since in the eyes of the world India will forever remain the Village Simpleton, however hard working. The comparison of Gandhi and a later charlatan, Vinoba Bhave, trying to take up the Gandhi torch, much by mistake, is showing. Bhave was a simple man who didn’t have the education, long term planning, rhetoric charm nor eloquence of Gandhi and therefore his stunt to be “the new Gandhi” failed miserably when he wasn’t able to answer the simplest questions by journalist, or even his followers. He started mumbling and stutter, looking away. Regardless of the Vinoba Bhave movement being short lived, he had a second career as a Holy Fool caracter in Indian politics. Politicians wanted to be photographed with him.Why? For good luck? No-one seems to know, and that is what Naipaul wants to show us. With this he thinks India and its mentality is biting its own tail. And he might be right. He finishes with “…India’s poverty and colonial, the riddle of the two civilisations, continue to stand in the way of identity and strength and intellectual growth”
He might just have found the sore spot that need healing.
As an introduction to the author, if not his grand authorship, A Writer’s People: Ways of Looking and Feeling is an excellent little volume filled to the brim with the wisdom and sometimes thought provoking fragments from the worldly mind of V. S. Naipaul. He doesn’t duck and cover, he shoots from the hip where necessary, but behind it all there is a strain of thoughts. You can almost see his experiences lined up like a DNA strand. If this is the book that will complete your summer reading list, you will cherish every second spent in its company.