Reading Naipaul’s new book, A Writer’s People: Ways of Looking and Feeling, reminded me, unexpectedly, of D.H. Lawrence, a writer of whom Naipaul is not overly fond. Yet there are concurrences. No writer since Lawrence has been so openly governed by what seem like powerful personal likes and dislikes, grievances, and by what appear to many like untenable prejudices. (The compulsions of dislike are evident everywhere in Naipaul’s new book, but most tragicomically in the chapter on Anthony Powell, a man Naipaul liked and whose generosity he benefited from, but whose writing, he discovered after Powell’s death, was ‘bad’. The chapter is an earnest but knowing attempt to come to terms with this ‘badness’.)
Interestingly, both Naipaul and Lawrence might express their dislike of a certain poem, novel, or person in a way that sounds at once passionate and perverse to the reader — passion (red-blooded in Lawrence, contained but palpable in Naipaul) and perversity are irrevocably related for these writers — and yet one is constantly nudged by the sense that, for the writers themselves, the individual dislike is part of a larger moral scheme whose purpose is glaringly obvious to them, but not always to us. What that scheme or cosmology might be, at least in the case of Lawrence, is becoming more comprehensible only now; and, perhaps fifty years from today, we’ll have a fuller, less predictable sense of what Naipaul has been telling his contemporaries. One thing is certain though, that while we can never ignore what these writers are saying, we can’t engage wholly with them by taking their statements on face value either. Lawrence, of course, warned the reader about this: about the disjunction between the writer and his message. Naipaul, on the other hand, wants to hold the writer to his or her word. His own message, in A Writer’s People, concerns, principally, the idea of ‘looking’; something that’s been at the core of his work from the start. Only an occasional, disorienting air of mischief in some of his pronouncements suggests that he might not always be saying what he means.
Other similarities must be mentioned: for instance, Lawrence’s almost single-handed invention of the novelist-traveller, reinvented almost single-handedly by Naipaul, and invested by him with the resonances that came into being in the aftermath of Empire. The culmination of the way in which travel radically reshaped Naipaul’s exploration of form is the astonishing and unclassifiable The Enigma of Arrival, neither autobiography, nor fiction, nor travelogue, and yet all of these three. Travel is also, I think, responsible for these writers’ extraordinary and singular sense of history and antiquity; a sense that’s informed by historical research, but runs counter to it, and to the steady unfolding of historical narrative. For both writers, history and antiquity occur most powerfully in a ‘now’, in a moment in the present that opens out suddenly on to the past, in a way that brings together all the knowledge the writer possesses as reader and student of history, as well as the dislocation he’s experiencing at that moment as traveller. This is what happens to Lawrence in the tombs in Etruscan Places; this is what informs the marvellous passage in The Enigma of Arrival when a procession of geese in Wiltshire offers the narrator a link between the present and the days of the Roman Empire; or this moment from the new book, where Naipaul is describing approaching Bombay for the first time: “The water in the harbour had the usual harbour litter, orange peel, a fine web of seemingly dusty, semi-iridescent scum hung with small leaves and bits of twig. It made me think of classical lands and of people making long journeys in ancient times to famous cities, to study rhetoric or philosophy or to put a question to the local oracle. The harbour water would have always been like this, ordinary, unremarkable, until it had been left behind on the journey out.” The insight that can’t be arrived at by accretion of historical detail: this is what Naipaul is talking about in his attack on Flaubert’s Salammbô in this book. It is directly connected, again, to his theme: the habit, or gift, of ‘looking’ and ‘seeing’. Polybius, the Greek historian from the 1st century BC from whom Flaubert borrowed his story, is ‘simple and direct’, as if he’d seen the details in his story first-hand; while Flaubert, researching antiquity, visiting the locale, inventing the past but not seeing it, has to “pad, and pad relentlessly”. Visual exactness is intimately connected, in Naipaul’s imagination, with the modern; it’s what makes, for him, Polybius’ ancient story contemporary, and its absence turns Flaubert’s novel into ‘theatre’.
It’s not surprising, with this essentially moral emphasis on ‘looking’, that, while praising Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, it’s the rendering of physical detail, of setting, of what’s dismissively called ‘description’ in everyday literary language, that Naipaul cherishes and holds up to our gaze. Again, one is reminded of the freshness of Lawrence’s responses in Studies in Classic American Literature, and how it’s the most visual and physically immediate passages from Fenimore Cooper’s novels or from Moby-Dick that delight and surprise him. In both Naipaul and Lawrence, an almost wilful prickliness about the world seems inextricable from a preternatural sensitivity and openness to its vividness. But now, on this matter of ‘looking’ or ‘seeing’, the comparison gradually, but inexorably, unravels.
The apogee of Lawrence’s visual sensibility is contained in Sons and Lovers, after which he promised himself and his friends to abandon the visual and the imagistic. It’s an important part of Lawrence’s anti-humanism from The Rainbow onwards: to distrust the human apprehension, and construction, of the world. For Naipaul, the grandson of indentured labourers, a man whose “ancestry is blurred”, ‘seeing’ with clarity is all-important to both constantly remaking the world through literature as well as to fashioning a history for oneself. Naipaul points out that “I have said that I very early became aware of different ways of seeing because I came to the metropolis from very far. Another reason may be that I don’t, properly speaking, have a past that is available to me, a past I can enter and consider; and I grieve for that lack.”
This, in its invocation of orphanhood, is subtly different from the way the products, and producers, of Bengali humanism saw themselves; yet the whole business of ‘looking’ or ‘seeing’ was clearly as important to the latter as it has been to Naipaul, and for similar reasons: as something crucial to the creation of an oeuvre, a canon, a tradition. So Satyajit Ray (whose work Naipaul greatly admires) could say in 1948, before he’d made a single film: “The raw material of the cinema is life itself. It is incredible that a country which has inspired so much painting and music and poetry should fail to move the film maker. He has only to keep his eyes open, and his ears. Let him do so.” Ray’s greatest films say the same thing, but obliquely, through the camera’s gaze; but these words’ prophetic, exhortatory quality, where an aesthetic programme in the context of cinema is also becoming a more general commandment, is surprisingly Naipaulean; except that Naipaul has been more explicit, dogged, and hectoring. ‘Looking’ is a cause; just how important it has been to post-colonial writers is probably not adequately understood. Its combination and crystallization of, at once, the artistic and the political explains the swiftness with which Naipaul, even in this book, can move from the subject of literature to that of history, from Derek Walcott, Anthony Powell, and Flaubert to the fascinating chapter on Gandhi and Nehru. But the intensity of the gaze is not something that present-day novelists always understand. I remember a very famous Indian writer, one who admitted to admiring A House for Mr Biswas, telling me last year of his consternation at Naipaul’s method in The Enigma of Arrival: “But to stare at a single hedge for sixteen pages!” This new book is a minor work, but an important coda, on a lifetime of ‘seeing’ and, perhaps unwittingly, on the violence of ‘seeing’, with the deceptive sense of certainty it guarantees the observer — a violence of which Lawrence became wary early on. Its most brilliant pages are its most idiosyncratic and individual ones, reminding us that one compelling way of ‘looking’ usually suggests the possibility of another.