A Writer’s People : V. S. Naipaul

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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.

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To Kill A Mockingbird : Harper Lee

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There’s something special about contemporary American literature, and I might as well admit from the start that I have a soft spot for 20th and 21st century American literature. I’ve had it for many years now and it’s a love story that’s getting stronger and stronger for every tome that passes through my hands. 
I have long thought about what it is that make it so appealing to me, but I struggle to find the core reason. Can it be that there is something special that you don’t get in European literature? That there seems to be a longing, a fight and a strive to create a better world. A fight to find an identity, whether it’s a self, a family identity or the identity of a state or a nation. Coming from a literary tradition more than 2000 years old I find the intellectual analyzing from the authors incredibly interesting and it creates a web of thoughts and questions we should all ask ourselves, Americans and Europeans alike.

Mind you, I don’t talk about Dan Brown or John Grisham here. Authors like Philip Roth, John Steinbeck, Harper Lee, John Updike and Jonathan Franzen are the ones, among many others, I refer to. Having said that, The Runaway Jury and The da Vinci Code have something to give us readers too. No question about it. Just not, in my view, as much substantial as, say, To Kill a Mockingbird, Catch 22 or The Corrections. And Harper Lee’s masterpiece To Kill a Mockingbird is the latest in the line of books I have just finished.

Harper Lee once described her Pulitzer Prize winning novel as “a simple love story”.  It is indeed just that, but it is also so much more. There are depths to the story that stay with you for a long time. The moral of this little town in the Deep South is eccentric, humorous and sometimes violent. But most importantly, it is deeply prejudiced.

Set in the 1930s, the story seen through the eyes of a child tells us about the severe injustice towards the Black population, how they were treated like dirt but employed by many as housekeepers, janitors etc. The few Caucasian that stand up for their coloured neighbours rights are mocked and banned from the social circuit. This moral dilemma creates a huge turmoil in nine year old Scout Finch when her father, the town lawyer Atticus Finch is taking on the alleged rape case against Tom Robinson, a Black man who is accused of raping the daughter of a redneck alcoholic living behind the town dump. Regardless of Tom Robinson’s obvious innocence proved in Court by Atticus Finch the jury decide against his favour and Tom Robinson is sent away to prison awaiting the chair. With this as a leading story within the story, Harper Lee manages to point a finger at all of us, forcing us to think twice about the world we live in almost hundred years later. Has it changed much? What do we do to create a fair world for all? Scout’s brother Jem has an exchange-of-words with his father just after the trial is over, and there are many thoughts that should echo recognition with us all today.

“You know rape’s a capital offense in Alabama,” said Atticus.“Yessir, but the jury didn’t have to give him death – if they wanted to they could’ve gave him twenty years.”“Given,” said Atticus. “Tom Robinson’s a colored man, Jem. No jury in this part of the world’s going to say, ‘We think you’re guilty, but not very,’ on a charge like that. It was either a straight acquittal or nothing.”Jem was shaking his head. “I know it’s not right, but I can’t figure out what’s wrong – maybe rape shouldn’t be a capital offence….”Atticus dropped his newspaper beside his chair. He said he didn’t have any quarrel with the rape statute, none whatever, but he did have misgivings when the state asked for and the jury gave a death penalty on purely circumstantial evidence.

“But lots of folks have been hung – hanged – on circumstantial evidence,” said Jem.“I know, and lots of ‘em probably deserved it, too – but in the absence of eye-witnesses there’s always a doubt, sometimes only the shadow of a doubt. The law says ‘reasonable doubt,’ but I think a defendant’s entitled to the shadow of a doubt. There’s always the possibility, no matter how improbable, that he’s innocent.”

The serious side to the story is surrounded by the cotton fields, corn flour bread and summer heat of the American South. You can almost smell the new baked bread eaten before everyone’s off to church on Sunday, you can hear the old Ford pick-up trucks driving along the dusty road leading in to Maycomb, the sleepy Southern town where the novel is set. That Harper Lee’s book has become a classic is very well deserved and I wish everyone would read it. Not just for the thought provoking content surrounding Tom Robinson’s case, but also for the nostalgia and love to ones childhood it creates. How simple life could be, with small joys and pleasures, but also how complex the grown up world seemed. 
Not that it seems less complex when one is adult, but the book reminds us about that the small things and the simple pleasures can sometimes be the best and most rewarding.