Saturday, March 12, 2011

"A Writer's People. Ways of Looking and Feeling" by V.S. Naipaul

Year of first publication: 2007
Genre: non-fiction / memoir
Country: Trinidad and Tobago / UK

In this book Naipaul writes about those writers he came into contact with, helping him find his own way of looking and feeling, that is to say his style and his way of observing the world. As a writer who comes from a place without solid traditions and culture, he had to work out his own material. He examines various writers, as different as Derek Walcott and Cicero, Flaubert and Anthony Powell, not to mention his own father Seepersad Naipaul, trying to explain their ways of seeing the world and of translating their feelings and impressions into words. Halfway between memoir and non-fiction, “A Writer’s People” is not scared to express strong opinions (wink to Vladimir Nabokov) such as ‘ I didn’t do English in the sixth form; and when I saw the text books, the “Lyrical Ballads” and so on, I considered myself lucky’ (p.8) or again ‘what a relief it was to feel that I need never read another letter of sweet nothings from Henry James again’ (p.56). Even though these sentences could sound arrogant out of context, I think that Sir Vidia was honest and humble in this work. He never thinks he is (or was) any better than the writers he assesses, though one must be very careful because the distinction is sometimes subtle. Many things he says about writing are undeniably true: ‘There is a kind of writing that undermines its subject. Most good writing , I believe is like that’ (p.40) and he manages to say what he wants with terse, simple language.
In the first chapter, sardonically called ‘The Worm in the Bud’, Naipaul writes about his nemesis Derek Walcott. Naipaul mocks those who, like Walcott, celebrate the culture of the Caribbean, suggesting that things like the steel band or the calypso are not really worth being called ‘culture’. He claims that Walcott tried to fill up the cultural emptiness felt by the inhabitants of the West Indies by borrowing from other cultures (Greek mythology, for instance) and giving people distorted ways to fill this lack, such as racial hatred and rage against the white people who exploited the islands. Walcott’s mind, according to Naipaul, remained anchored to his small little island, refusing to see the greater picture. For his pessimism, Naipaul has been dubbed by Walcott (a Nobel Prize apiece they are!) V.S. Nightfall and a mocking poem has even been written on the topic. The problem is that by the end of this chapter (and this book) I still haven’t grasped what really is his particular way of seeing and feeling. Apart from feeling disconnected from most writers on the face of the earth, the author does not say it.
In the second chapter ‘The English Way of Looking’, the author writes at length about his friend and fellow-writer Anthony Powell, an influential English writer in the 1950s. He laments that Powell wrote about English society in great detail, but without undermining the subject from within. Probably true. The reason is, according to Naipaul, that every aspect of English society, and especially of English country life, has already been written. However, he also criticized English travel writers (Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, Somerset Maugham) for assuming that people knew about the socio-political entanglements of the countries they were writing about. He thinks that ‘it seemed, in strange way, that at the end, when the dust had settled, the people who wrote as though they were at the centre of things might be revealed as the provincials’ (p.55). He did not convince me. Naipaul seems to ignore the fact that society is always changing and so is history: a novel written about the English society in 2011 will not be the same as a novel written about that same society in, say, 2007. The recession has happened and the Arab world is in revolt, for instance. Relationships, reactions and lifestyles continually change and are affected by a multitude of factors, so there will always be new material to write on.
The last three chapters follow a circular pattern: the author starts writing about what he believes is an Indian way of seeing and then passes on to some Latin authors, only to shed light on his ideas about Indian contemporary culture, which he essentially condemns as materialistic and culturally dependent on the West. Naipaul details the life of Gandhi, whom he portrays essentially as a provincial man whose view of the world was rather dim, but who had some great intuitions. Strangely enough, the ‘half-view’ of classical authors resembles the Indian way of seeing and feeling, that the author calls ‘looking and not seeing’. Naipaul laments that Indians claim they know Gandhi, without acknowledging the various elements that created his philosophy (his experience in London studying law, his imprisonment in South Africa, the observation of his mother’s faults and essentially the conflict between his admiration and his disgust for the colonizers). Indians, according to Naipaul, are confused. ‘India has no autonomous intellectual life’ he writes at the end of the book, blaming expatriate writers for writing overtly autobiographical novels moulded on creative writing courses that ultimately look all the same.
I don’t know what to make of this book. Did I like it? Did I not like it? I am uncomfortable with some of the conclusions, but I was spellbound while I was reading it. Written in spare prose, with anecdotes that are affectionate and cruel at the same time, Naipaul knows how to use his words and understands what it means to be a writer, the challenges and frustrations of the job. I had never imagined, for instance, that a writer like V.S. Naipaul never got over his shyness in seeing his name in print!

About the author:
V.S. Naipaul was born in 1932 in Trinidad. He belongs to a family which descends from the indented workers brought from India to replace the African slaves who refused to work on the sugar plantations. His father Seepersad was a pioneer writer in the small intellectual community in Trinidad. Naipaul left his island for England with a scholarship and studied in Oxford. After his studies he began to write and has pursued no other profession. Among his first novels are “The Mystic Masseur” (1957), “A House for Mr Biswas” (1961) and “In A Free State” (1971). The latter has won the Booker Prize. He has also travelled the world and written about it: his acclaimed Indian Trilogy (“An Area of Darkness”, “India: A Wounded Civilization” and “India: A Million Mutinees Now”) and “Among the Believers: An Islamic Journey” are some examples of his travel writing. Naipaul has been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2001 ‘for having united perceptive narrative and incorruptible scrutiny in works that compel us to see the presence of suppressed histories’. His work has raised a lot of controversy, mainly for political reasons and for his unsympathetic portrayal of the developing world, especially in his travel writing.


  1. "As a writer who comes from a place without solid traditions and culture", does Naipaul needs a culture? Someone who has mocked at almost every culture he has come into contact it. Someone who thinks that by spending a day or two in another country is enough to understand and judge that country's culture. I always see him as someone who won the Nobel with one or two brilliant books. His travelogues are the worst. I don't hate it when people make honest judgement about a culture or even try to write it as they see it but when one tries to judge the culture, pretending that all knowledge exists in his very head, I have a problem.

    I see you have changed the outlook of your blog. The background pix is nice.

  2. I haven't read this book. But some of your conclusions about Naipul are similar to mine...
    While reading his books, I was also spellbound by his writing and his anecdotes, and at the end I was unconfortable with some his conclusions (actually most of them!).
    However, I appreciated to see things from a different point of view, through his sharp and sometimes cruel lens.

  3. I liked this book. I read it many years ago.
    Good book review.
    And nice new style for your blog!

  4. Ciao Stefania, passo per un saluto e per dirti che ho trovato piacevolissimo aggirarmi nel tuo bel blog. A presto!

  5. Sorry people, this week has been very busy!

    @Nana: I can only judge for this book and I can tell that Naipaul can be irritating. However, his writing is impeccable and his remarks are often razorsharp. He is the kind of person who is not ashamed to say 'I hate Henry James' and this is laudable.

    @Silvia: I completely agree.

    @Sonia: I thought I was loving it as well, but when I finished it and I started to think about it as a whole, there was this certain uneasiness with its conclusions. I can't say that I didn't like it, though.

    Giacy.nta: Benvenuta!

  6. ciao Stefania, ti ricordi l'anno scorso al Festival letteratura a mantova??
    E' stato incredibile, ne abbiamo parlato per un bel pezzo poi...

  7. @Elisa: Certo che mi ricordo! Spero che ad aprile a Venezia non sia così...

  8. Hey Stefania, I am reading a Naipaul right now - it is LETTERS BETWEEN A FATHER AND SON, and it is the letters he and his father wrote while he was at Oxford. It is actually quite sweet and touching, and makes me like the man. What is hilarioius is how at this time in his life he is so excited about England, he even thinks the weather is nice!!! No one thinks that, surely. Your review also made me laugh because I for my Alevels (whcih I took in Zimbabwe) had to do LYRICAL BALLADS, and I really suffered for it! I love the quote at the top of your blog, by the way.

  9. @Sarah: Hilarious what he said about the weather. He must be the only person in the world to like it! I think when you are excited about something new, you tend to romanticise it and even less stimulating things such as the English weather look nice.
    About "Lyrical Ballads", some parts I also found boring (the best parts I had to do by myself). I do like Henry James' "sweet nothings", though.