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A Writer's People - Naipaul

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post Sep 27 2007, 07:45 PM
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From The Sunday Times
September 23, 2007

A Writer's People: A Way of Looking and Feeling by VS Naipaul
Reviewed William Dalrymple

Few would deny that VS Naipaul has been one of the most innovative and interesting writers living in Britain; he was also, from the late 1950s until the mid-1980s, one of the seminal figures of postcolonial literature. At his best, his prose was distinguished by its startling clarity and precision, its spare and deceptive simplicity and its penetrating directness and honesty.

Naipaul’s early work was his most accessible: his warm, lively comic novels set in Trinidad opened up a new world to readers in the late 1950s. If Kingsley Amis represented the shift in class that took place in English letters after the war, so Naipaul represented the beginning of the shift in ethnicity that was later to see the triumph of writers such as Salman Rushdie and Zadie Smith.

During the 1960s and 1970s, Naipaul’s work deepened and darkened. He shed his earlier joie de vivre and began to assume the persona of a post-colonial Conrad, coolly examining the painful wounds left both by European colonialism and its sudden retreat. Here he was at his best: the detached outsider, struggling to understand, taking the time to go to places and talk to people, to drill away at them and expose them with their own words. Even when one disagreed with his views – such as his relentlessly negative assessment of Islam – it was impossible to deny the power of his writing.

From the mid-1980s, however, as he grew older and grander, Naipaul became more self-absorbed and increasingly made himself his own subject. First, in Finding the Centre, then in The Enigma of Arrival, and thereafter in numerous essays and fragments of autobiography (A Way in the World, A Writer and the World, Literary Occasions, Reading and Writing), he turned his vision inward. He wrote of the trials and struggles he endured as a young writer trying to find his voice, of his “jangling nerves”, the “pain” of his creativity.

A Writer’s People, published just after Naipaul’s 75th birthday, continues to mine this familiar seam, but now with ever-diminishing returns. The constant emphasis on his pain and anxiety seems increasingly overdone: after all, Naipaul had family in London who put him up; he was never hungry or without income; his books had immediate success.

There is, in fact, little in this volume that we have not heard before: we have already read about his scorn for the “half-made” society of the Caribbean, the example of his father, his views on Gandhi and Nirad Chaudhuri, and so on. All that is new is the relentlessness of his self-obsession, and the now comprehensive nature of his contempt for everyone and everything he writes about.

Naipaul was once a penetrating and unpredictable literary critic, but in A Writer’s People criticism has been reduced to a series of spiky provocations (“personal prejudice can be amusing in the autobiographical mode,” he writes) interspersed with brisk assassinations of his perceived rivals: A Passage to India has “no meaning”; Derek Walcott grew “stagnant” after his first book of poems; Evelyn Waugh is “mannered [and] flippant”; Anthony Powell’s writing is “overexplained” and his characters are “one-dimensional”; Chaudhuri is “vain and mad”; Henry James writes only “sweet nothings”; Philip Larkin is “a minor poet”; Flaubert after Madame Bovary descended into “artificiality” and wrote “bad 19th-century fiction”.

Naipaul’s view of the places that moulded him are no less sour: Trinidad “had nothing that could be called a civilisation” and was ultimately a “spiritual emptiness”; Oxford students were “provincial and mean and common”; India has “no autonomous intellectual life” and its fiction, successful though it may be, is still largely mimicry and “imitation”.

In small doses this is all amusing in a curmudgeonly, grumpy-grandfather sort of way; at length it is at first tedious, then distasteful. Naipaul’s theme is about “vision, ways of seeing and feeling”; yet in this work, more than ever, he is blinded by his ego, by his vanity and strong prejudices, and much of what he writes is simply lazy, mean-minded and frequently offensive nonsense: this is especially true when he writes with deep contempt of the “Bible-crazed Negro” of his Caribbean upbringing.

More surprising, Naipaul’s discussion of Gandhi is superficial and dull: far more can be learnt about this fascinatingly complex man in the introductory passage of Kathryn Tidrick’s brilliant 2006 biography than the two repetitive chapters that Naipaul produces here. Likewise, his assertion that India has no intellectual life or literary criticism is wrong: the universities in India are buzzing with the same vibrant life that one sees today in Indian commerce, and the country is exporting academics at an unprecedented rate to Oxbridge and the Ivy League; and, in Biblio, India has a literary journal that compares favourably in many ways with the Times Literary Supplement.

Ultimately, this is a grand old man’s book: meandering, ponderous and pedantic, full of narcissism and touchy self-regard; it is as if Naipaul’s famous Olympian disdain has finally left him exhausted – the acidity of his own derision now makes him write contemptuously even of those he once loved and admired.

There is a tragedy here. As Philip Roth has so dramatically shown, old age need not mean the end of a great writer’s productivity. Humility, energy and ambition can still spur even the finest author to attempt to scale ever greater peaks. Naipaul, in contrast, has died as a writer: the more he records about his calling, the more impotent his pen seems to have become.

The wisdom, the warmth, the humour, and, above all, the compassion have all gone from the prose; what we are left with is the bitter and desiccated husk of that once lively, warm and surprising writer from the village outside Port of Spain.

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post Sep 28 2007, 10:22 PM
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From The Sunday Times
August 26, 2007

VS Naipaul: the great offender

Few writers get up noses like VS Naipaul, but his views on Islam, Gandhi and English Lit courses have a ring of truth
Bryan Appleyard

Sir Vidia Naipaul, Nobel laureate and the greatest writer now living in Britain, chuckles a lot. Here he is on the state of the English novel.

“I think when it’s been done, it’s been done and it can’t be done again ... You can’t write about the manners of the English countryside, there’s nothing to write about that’s not been said. It’s true in a larger form about the novel. After nearly 170 years, starting with Dickens, everything that a novel could do has been done ...” He pauses. “These are private views.”

Then the chuckle.

I’ve been watching this chuckle for some years.

It is an important literary phenomenon, but it can easily pass unnoticed. It is an inward chuckle, very quiet and involving only the slightest movement of the shoulders. He is chuckling to himself about himself. In this case, he is chuckling at the thought of the number of people he will annoy. He also chuckles at his own moments of ironic overstatement.

“Now that I’ve finished this book, I feel washed clean.” Chuckle.

Once I, with a few of his friends, was invited to accompany him to a festival in his honour in France. It turned out he had agreed to attend on the basis that he did not have to say anything. His friends were there to do all the talking. We lined up on the stage, flanking Naipaul, who was seated on some kind of throne. Chuckling. Meanwhile, I felt like Cary Grant in Bringing up Baby – “This is probably the silliest thing that’s ever happened to me.”

Naipaul chuckles at the gulf that divides all delusions, pretensions, expectations and vanities from reality. Naipaul is one of the great masters of black comedy. In fiction, he says that, in creating characters, he likes simply to walk around, not judge, them. But in doing so, he manages to expose all their flaws and the dark comedy of their lives. Like Conrad, his true predecessor (though he would never agree to that), he sees humanity as irre-deemably flawed, though worth close observation.

Naipaul is hypersensitive to these human flaws. He once said: “I was gifted at an early age – the minute I saw a person, I could see the flaw in that person. It was like a curse.” So, naturally, I ask him what flaw he saw in me. After trying to avoid the question, he says he no longer has the gift.

“You lost it, coincidentally, just before you met me?”

“Exactly.” Chuckle.

His nonfiction does the same walking-around trick to devastating effect. Notably in Among the Believers: An Islamic Journey, published in 1981, simply by letting people speak, he exposed the delusions, anger and fanaticism that would lead, 20 years later, to 9/11. That book was a phenomenally prescient document, but it seemed to isolate Naipaul. He realised the extent of this isolation when, after publication, he was invited to Harvard.

“They wanted to have a discussion with me – that’s what they said. They wanted no such thing. They wanted the fellows of their institute to all say their piece of rage and criticism. It was such a shocking occasion. I think that’s what happens when people believe their principles are higher than reality... Now, if someone says they are from Harvard, I feel they are condemning themselves out of their own mouth.” Chuckle.

The assembled academics could not bear to have their soft liberalism refuted by a man who was saying, with clear evidence, that Islam was incubating something rotten. “But, for me, there was no problem in it. It was there, waiting to be seen. I was rather shocked at the depth of this antiintellectualism in the Islamic world. It was shocking. I didn’t know about it.”

I point out that he once said Islam used to be a rather grand, tolerant faith. “Not really. That’s been said, but it’s not so. It’s a converting religion. It tends to expand and expand and expand. It’s against dissent ... I don’t think they were ever tolerant, no. And their achievements in architecture and mathematics were taken from other cultures that they overran. They took a lot from Iran.”

Harvard – and many other experiences – convinced him that nothing was to be expected of academia. And he has, ever since, been one of the harshest critics of universities.

“I think academics are bad. They spread ideas about things that they are determined to get one to accept.

“They have their ideas about multiculturalism, for example, or about Africa. They distort publishing to some extent. They publish the books for these courses, and it gives an illusion for great popularity, of ideas sweeping the world. But they’re not. They’re just ideas in grubby little textbooks that are stuffed in students’ bags.”

Now he says that all university English departments should be closed down. “I think it would be a great fillip, a great boost to the intellectual life of the country. It would immediately have a great impact. It would release a lot of manpower. They could go and work on the buses and things like that.” Huge chuckle. In fact, he believes universities should “deal in measurable truth” and teach only science.

Naipaul doesn’t trade in ideas, like academics, he trades in stories. When I ask him to generalise about human nature on the basis of the spectacle of radical Islamism, what it says about the eternal human need to find meaning by killing and being killed, he tells a story.

“This comes from a book called the Chachnama – it’s an account of the conquest of Sind, that bit of India that first fell to the Muslims. There is an account there of one of the local soldiers seeing the enemy at prayer, all bowing at the same time, all thoroughly disciplined. He gets very frightened and says, ‘I can’t defeat that.’

“So I think that might be the attraction of it [Islamism], joining a big crowd that will be on your side, the need to belong. You are seeing that especially among the black people from Jamaica and places like that. They are so excited to belong to the Islamic movement over there.”

Naipaul continues to be a victim of the Harvard effect. Though he has been multiply honoured, there is still a feeling that his cold, clear gaze is not quite respectable in polite circles.

Politically, he inspires intense unease. When he won the Nobel prize, in 2001, no invitation arrived from Downing Street. Blair was, perhaps, not big enough to overlook Naipaul’s past rudeness.

“I said he was a pirate in 1999, or whenever it was. I said something about the dangers of encouraging a popular culture that honours only itself.

These are good thoughts, interesting thoughts.” Big chuckle.

But the point is that Blair was something of a pirate, radical Islamism isan antiintellectual creed of mad delusions, and academics dopeddle ideas for the sake of it. Naipaul tells the truth. He not only looks, he sees.

Looking and seeing are the subjects of his new book of essays, A Writer’s People: Ways of Looking and Feeling. It is an autobiographical work, but then, much of his work, fact and fiction, is autobiographical.

And, like all his autobiographical excursions, A Writer’s People is centred on the pain he feels at having no past. Born to an Indian family in Trinidad, he knew nothing of any family before his parents.

“That’s always been a great blow to me. I’m reading Pepys. Here is Pepys writing about himself. I’m quite shocked to learn that Pepys can trace his people back to when they were villeins in the 13th century. It’s wonderful. I don’t have that – it all stops with my father.

“I don’t know anything about them, and nobody has recorded anything about them. I don’t have that kind of past. I think I would have been a different man if I had had a past. I would have had something extra from walking about in this past and understanding it.”

The small Indian community from which he came invented a past for themselves, an imaginary India of great and impossible glories. His mother succumbed to this myth. In one particularly telling essay in this book, Naipaul writes of her diary of a visit to her ancestral country. She visits relations and is given a cup of tea. One woman wipes the side of the cup with the palm of her hand and another brings her sugar and stirs it into the tea with her finger. That single and, to her, disgusting gesture destroys his mother's Indian fantasy, and the diary simply stops.

“The land of myth,” he writes, “of a perfection that at one time had seemed vanished and unreachable, had robbed her of words.”

Though hungry for a past, Naipaul never fell for this myth, and his mordant observations of the shortcomings of India have earned him yet more enemies. There was one prissy, middle-class Indian myth that, because of the Hindu emphasis on purity, India was a particularly clean place. By looking and seeing, Naipaul destroyed that absurdity. India was, to him, a mess. And, if there is one thing he hates more than anything else, it is mess.

“I hate it, I hate it, I hate it. It comes from my background. There was always a mess, and my father hated it too. He didn’t like putting his foot down on the ground. He always wore those wooden sabots people made for themselves. He wouldn’t walk barefooted.”

Naipaul himself got into trouble in India for refusing to take his shoes off when entering a temple. “The Indian thing about cleanliness and purity becomes confused. But it’s worse if you take your shoes off. I did that in India in 1962, and got ringworm later. It’s a lovely idea, walking barefoot, but, if it’s not clean, it becomes horrible.”

Mess has been rigorously expelled from his life. His house, a few miles outside Salisbury, is a neat essay in undemonstrative English style. But the big garden is where he really unleashes his antimess campaign. He doesn’t like the mess of flowers, particularly suburban mounds of multi-coloured roses. If there must be flowers – blossoms, for example – then they must be white. As a result, the ferociously neat, beautifully kept garden is a solid green all the way down to the River Avon, which marks his boundary. Yet, bizarrely, one pink rose has emerged near the back door. He shakes his head sadly.

The new book has already begun to add to his list of critics and enemies in India. His assessment of Gandhi has provoked anger. This is absurd, because he regards Gandhi as a very great man indeed. But he emphasises the extent to which the Gandhi who dressed as a peasant was a careful construct. More important, the reason Gandhi was great, he says, was not simply that he fought for independence, but that he saw what was wrong with India and, instead of turning away in disgust, became a reformer.

“It was so depressing when he went back to India and saw the people he was going to win freedom for . . . If it had been me, I would have turned around and said, ‘I’ll become a lawyer; I’ll live my life quietly and forget about this.’ But he just plunged in and in and in. That was very great of him, really.”

Meanwhile, large parts of the Eng Lit establishment will probably be incensed by his assessment of the novelist Anthony Powell. Incomprehensibly – to me, at least – Powell’s long novel cycle A Dance to the Music of Time is regarded by many as a great work of art. During his early days in London in the 1950s, Naipaul became a great friend of Powell. He still talks about him with immense affection and gratitude – “The people he really liked he never judged, and that’s beautiful.” But, in his essay on Powell, he virtually dismisses him as a serious writer.

Naipaul is now 75, and, I would guess, has a few years left yet to tell the truth and make enemies. I hope so because, even when chuckling, he is one of the most serious men I have ever known. His austere, monkish devotion to his art and his courage in seeing and telling the truth represent a level of high seriousness that has all but vanished from contemporary Britain. He also has something else that has vanished – a love of and respect for the country. The last story he tells me concerns a lecture he gave in India. In it, he tried to explain to the Indians the need for a culture to back power and economic success. It was replete with admiration for the British past, but . . .

“There was not a glimmer of understanding. I told them that, in their great days, the British didn’t just have generals winning the wars. At the back of that, there was a lot of social thought – Ruskin, Morris, all these people. And there was a lot of science, great science – theoretical and practical. Faraday, for example. There was also a great literary life at the back of it. But they don’t understand what I say.”

There’s a soft rumble, as of a Tube train deep underground. He’s chuckling.

A Writer’s People: Ways of Looking and Feeling by VS Naipaul is published by Picador on September 7 at £16.99

Pariah or muse?

One of the most intriguing aspects of VS Naipaul’s career is that he is both English literature’s greatest living “postcolonial” writer and a pariah to the postcolonial academic and literary establishment. To his fellow Caribbean Nobel-winner Derek Walcott, he is “VS Nightfall”, possessed with a “chronic dispiritedness”, whose brilliant prose is “scarred by scrofula” and a “repulsion towards Negroes”. For Salman Rushdie, books such as Beyond Belief: Islamic Excursions (1998) place Naipaul in dangerous alignment with Hindu nationalism.

His detractors’ issue is not with his talent: nobody dares to deny Naipaul writes as one sided with the angels. Their problem is his political and racial views, and a perceived misuse of an immense talent that, it is argued, betrays his heritage. Naipaul is a product of empire: brought up in Trinidad, a descendant of Indians indentured to work there by the British. Yet some feel that when he sailed for Britain, the dark heart of the evil empire, he became a postcolonial Darth Vader who, when surveying the new commonwealths, sided not with the newly liberated, but with the former oppressors. In The Middle Passage (1962), he infamously offended his Caribbean birthplace by stating: “Nothing was created in the West Indies.” Critics such as Edward Said found A Bend in the River (1979), which is set in Africa, deeply offensive. In it, Said argued, Naipaul “allowed himself quite consciously to be turned into a witness for the Western prosecution”.

Interestingly, a younger generation of postcolonial writers value the writing while distancing themselves from Naipaul’s politics. Kiran Desai, awarded the 2006 Man Booker for The Inheritance of Loss, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who won the 2006 Orange prize for Half of a Yellow Sun, both cite Naipaul as a key influence.

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post Sep 29 2007, 02:57 AM
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Hi Noorie
Thank you for providing two insightful essays on an isightful man. We humans rarely agree on substantial issues and Naipaul has his way of disagreeing with and of finding falasies among the people he writes about.His writings show some aspects of Indian life and the delusions we live under to be what they are.Not everyone is happy or pleased by his descriptions and his views on things we hold as precious or sacred in our lives.But if Naipaul did not make people uncomfortable and show deficiencies in their outlook and vision by his pronouncements he would be dismissed as one of those run of the mill people that he is so good at thumbing his nose at.Harjinder
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