A WRITER’S PEOPLE: WAYS OF LOOKING AND FEELING
By V. S. Naipaul
Alfred A. Knopf, 189 pages, $24.95
If the Nobel Prize is the ticket to one’s own funeral, as T. S. Eliot once quipped, then V. S. Naipaul is taking the scenic route. His authorized (but unsupervised) biography has just appeared in the United Kingdom, where the press mined it for every mention of his nastiness toward his first wife and mistress. But before that drama replays itself here, Mr. Naipaul has published A Writer’s People, a series of essays and reminisces in which he ruminates on the reputations of fellow writers. Derek Walcott, Anthony Powell and even Flaubert come under the knife, and serve as entry points for a kind of negative introspection: Mr. Naipaul defines himself by what he’s not.
“I don’t, properly speaking, have a past that is available to me,” Mr. Naipaul declares. But he touts this lack as his greatest asset. Growing up poor in Trinidad, Mr. Naipaul drew early confidence from the St. Lucian poet Derek Walcott, who laid claim to the Caribbean as ripe territory for modern poetry. But just as the teenage Naipaul learned he had no use for the word “plethora,” so he wised up about Mr. Walcott’s idealized landscape. For all his channeling of Caribbean sunshine, the poet saw the islands with English eyes. “The idea of island beauty …” Mr. Naipaul writes, “was in fact imposed from outside, by things like postage stamps and travel posters.” Mr. Walcott’s poetry—“too innocent really, not to say disingenuous”—comes close to tourist kitsch.
At least Mr. Naipaul took the time to read Walcott. About Anthony Powell, among the first writers to welcome Mr. Naipaul into the bosom of literary London, he’s less gracious. By the time he’d finished Powell’s 12-novel sequence, A Dance to the Music of Time, the author was long dead. But Mr. Naipaul recasts this lapse as a courtesy. “His writing didn’t seem to come out of need,” he reports after reading it. “He seemed to have risked nothing.” He dismisses Powell’s epic as a superfluous vanity project.
Anyone who’s read Powell will find Mr. Naipaul’s objections paltry and, worse, common. While detractors typically criticize Powell’s novels for an excess of coincidence, Mr. Naipaul goes one step further, suggesting there was a whole underground conspiracy of editors, writers and friends who were embarrassed for Powell. He attributes the source of Powell’s nickname—“horse-faced dwarf”—to the “minor” poet Philip Larkin, when it more likely came from Kingsley Amis. After these slipshod ramblings, you begin to wonder what kind of need drives Mr. Naipaul in these essays. His trademark honesty takes on an obsessive quality, corroding the very truths it tries to expose.
UNSURPRISINGLY, A WRITER’S People is unified by an intensely Oedipal strain. Mr. Naipaul’s father, Seepersad, a journalist for the Trinidad Guardian, harbored literary ambitions only his son could fulfill (this painful realization was at the heart of the moving correspondence collected in Between Father and Son). The son excuses his parent’s mediocrity on chronological grounds: “My father might have been a better writer if he had been second or third in his field, if someone had done the local colour before him.” With Seepersad and Walcott before him, Mr. Naipaul could make the jump to writing necessary novels on a virtually untapped subject.
Mr. Naipaul seems to think novelists play a zero-sum game, speculating for subjects that can yield only limited reserves. It’s an absurd, Malthusian explanation of literary production. “When [Powell] was beginning, very little about these great European societies had been left unsaid,” he writes. Three hundred years ago, Powell would have been in the ideal position to write about English country life, the implication goes, but now the subject has dried up. Meanwhile, the rise of political Islam, Black Power movements, African dictatorships, awkward interracial sex—these are the subjects for our time.
But Mr. Naipaul curiously tempers this view in his essay on Madame Bovary. He marvels over Flaubert’s mastery of local detail, and sets the book against the author’s later novel Salammbô, which he finds unforgivably precious in its attempt to rewrite the Greek historian Polybius. Having condemned Powell for writing about a society too near at hand, Mr. Naipaul now cringes as Flaubert swoons in the purple haze of his too distant subject. This latter criticism seems more just, and it’s thrilling to watch him try to take the father of the modern novel down a peg.
Many have tried to explain how Sir Vidia came to lord it so over British letters. His new biographer, Patrick French, says it partially derives from his penchant for “picong,” the Trindadian term for taking pleasure in colorful insults. Others say he has outdone the Brits at their own cold game of snobbery.
Whatever the reason, Mr. Naipaul has always saved his sympathy for his writing. A Writer’s People unfortunately registers that sympathy in short supply. It leaves you thinking the man who’s all-seeing in his work has played blind man’s bluff in his life.
Thomas Meaney is a graduate student in the history department at Columbia University. He can be reached at email@example.com.