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A Writer’s People: Ways of Looking and Feeling
By V.S. Naipaul, Picador, Rs 395

It is not for comfort that one goes to Naipaul. “There is a kind of writing that undermines its subject,” he says in “An English Way of Looking”, the second chapter of A Writer’s People: Ways of Looking and Feeling. “Most good writing, I believe, is like that.” The context is Anthony Powell’s multi-volume autobiographical novel, A Dance to the Music of Time, and Naipaul takes intense, almost tortured, care to show why it is bad. The torture comes from a complicated source. Naipaul met Powell in London in 1957, and through him got his first jobs as reviewer and columnist at a time he was at his most confused. He was trying to make his way as a writer in a place which really had no room for him, he says, and “where, contrary to what I had thought since concrete ambition had come to me, there was no republic of letters”. That is what made Powell’s “generosity of spirit” and friendship “all the more remarkable”.

But that does not stop Naipaul from dissecting Powell’s life’s work to find exactly what is wrong with it, or from wondering what would have happened to his side of the friendship had he read Powell’s work “in a connected way” earlier than he did. But Naipaul is more concerned with writing than with people in this volume: his purpose is not literary criticism or biography. “I wish only,” he writes, “and in a personal way, to set out the writing to which I was exposed during my career.” But by “writing”, he means “vision, a way of seeing and feeling”. Yet, it is impossible to escape a sense of ambivalence in his precisely constructed portrait of Powell, that innocent “collector of people”, unconscious of what people said behind his back to his young protégé, and deeply hurt by the reviews of Malcolm Muggeridge and Auberon Waugh. It seems that Naipaul remains mystified — almost — by “Bron’s” calculated malice.

The comments about writers such as Kipling or Evelyn Waugh, provocative, or insightful, or casual — is Philip Larkin really a “minor poet”? — are incidental to Naipaul’s discussion of ways of seeing: “All my life I had to think about ways of looking and how they alter the configuration of the world.” It is not just the shifting, vigorous ideal of looking that the “serious traveller” seeks to achieve that is important here, but also the fact that Naipaul has had to think about it always. For it is the early immigrant-colonial experience in Trinidad that determines his lifelong way of looking — he is, by implication, the “outsider” that he says Edgar Mittelholzer, a writer from his region, was. The immigrant-colonial experience that he depicts with patience and insight emerges in the first chapter through his discussion of Derek Walcott, and the fates of writers like Mittelholzer and, most important to him personally, his father.

Early Walcott worked his way around the “spiritual emptiness” that was a problem “for everyone from the plantation territories who wanted to write”. He was lucky in his early audience, “middle-class people of mixed race”, who sensed the emptiness but could not have defined it: “The beaches of which they were proud … might have given them an idea of the beginning of the emptiness.” But Walcott had to move away, for spiritual emptiness was not a source that could be worked forever. The “wonderful new black voice in the United States” is not one with which, it seems, Naipaul could have identified. Yet Joseph Conrad, the one writer who had “exactly caught” Naipaul’s feelings about the land of his “mixed and secondhand” childhood, is missing here. In “Conrad’s Darkness and Mine”, written years ago in 1974, Naipaul had quoted from “Karain”: “It appeared to us a land without memories, regrets and hopes; a land where nothing could survive the coming of the night, and where each sunrise, like a dazzling act of special creation, was disconnected from the eve and the morrow.”

It is this disconnection with memory, the loss of a “private” India, not the India of rituals or the India of the national movement, that most unsettles the young Naipaul. And he finds in the self-fashioning of Gandhi, a country boy from Gujarat with neither history nor geography in his head when he first goes to England, the tortuous building up of the ability to see. In India it is normal not to see: “Looking and not seeing: the Indian Way” is the chapter in which he discusses how and what Gandhi saw, and, even more movingly, how Nehru saw Gandhi. To see and remember are strange in India, one has to be inside and outside at the same time, like any great writer should be. The mattress-maker in the Port of Spain of Naipaul’s childhood could only say he saw railway trains when a boy greedy for the private India asked him what he remembered.

It is from the fourth chapter, “Disparate Ways”, that the volume begins to fracture. While Naipaul’s discussion of the brilliance of detail in Flaubert’s Madame Bovary and its comparison with the “purple” Salammbô are done with a combination of grave sensitiveness and gentle demolition, he gives less space to Caesar and Virgil, to show how a writer will drop detail when confident of sharing cultural and historical space with his readers. Naipaul comes back to India in the last chapter, savaging Vinoba Bhave and Nirad C. Chaudhuri within a couple of pages of each other. From Chaudhuri’s “broken-backed” autobiography, he jumps to a judgment of the present “crop of novels” arising out of India’s “improved English education”: “India has no autonomous intellectual life”. There is nothing equal to what the Russian writers writing about Russian life could produce. He may be right of course, but readers would be curious to know whether Naipaul read them in the Russian. It is a silly little bit in a book with many riches. The most delightful moments come out of disdain, after all, as when he compares Flaubert’s commentary on his own writing to E.M. Forster’s, “who wrote many different forewords to A Passage to India to explain the meaning of a book that hides its prompting and really has no meaning”. It is impossible not to agree.

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