What is it that makes a writer’s essays on other writers so interesting? Several reasons present themselves. One is awareness. Although they may not have an explicit method or theory of literature, writers enjoy a comparative advantage over literary critics because of their immersion in practicalities, their understanding that works of literature are made up of words and sentences before they are made up of ideas or themes.
A second reason is urgency. Writers are what might be called proselytizing readers. They typically have stronger likes and dislikes than the common reader, and the arguments they make in favour of or against books are weighted at a pitch we are accustomed to hearing only on big questions, such as “Does God exist?” or “How can I save on tax?”.
And this brings us to a third reason: personality. A writer’s criticism is often a revelation of his or her own aesthetic, and all the more interesting for being so. We enjoy what a writer has to say about other writers because of the pressure of his own ideas and the pleasure of his “voice”; we sense the attraction of not only the works he discusses, but also possibly his own works.
Certainly, the emphases of V.S. Naipaul’s latest book, A Writer’s People: Ways of Looking and Feeling, emerge directly from his autobiography and from his own efforts as a writer to present a true picture of the world. In a series of shrewd, detailed and rewarding essays on writers as different in time and method as Gandhi, Flaubert, Virgil, Nirad C. Chaudhuri, Derek Walcott and his own father Seepersad, Naipaul teases out the ways in which the writing expresses an original vision of the world, “sees” more and reveals more than conventional writing does.
A Writer’s People, Picador, 194pg, Rs395
Indeed, the verb “see” is the word most central to Naipaul’s understanding of literature, of the source of the power latent in writers. It can be found as early as 1964, in his assessment of Gandhi in An Area of Darkness: “He looked at India as no Indian was able to; his vision was direct, and this directness was, and is, revolutionary…. He sees the Indian callousness, the Indian refusal to see.”
It also emerges in his admiring remarks about a trio of 19th century French writers of fiction—Flaubert, Balzac and Maupassant—made in a famously controversial interview with Farrukh Dhondy in 2001: “This imaginative writing enabled people to possess their societies. That’s the most extraordinary gift that these writers gave people—the ability to see their societies.”
This startling idea that a writer may gift his readers their own societies, the very world they live in and experience all the time, explains why Naipaul sees many societies, including present-day Indian society, as existing in a kind of limbo. In all of A Writer’s People, he is never more acerbic than in a short coda about the state of literature in India. “India has no autonomous intellectual life,” he huffs. “India is hard and materialist. The most important judgements of an Indian book continue to be imported…literary criticism is still hardly known as an art.” All the qualities that Naipaul considers necessary in an evolved civilization, such as “identity and strength and intellectual growth”, are to his mind still nascent in India.
Moment of honour: Winner of the 2001 Nobel Prize for Literature, this is the knighted author’s 29th book
We have heard these complaints from Naipaul before; if all he did here was repeat himself, his book would have been tiresome. Thankfully, A Writer’s People is more appreciation than denunciation. The beautiful opening chapter, with its tightly-coiled sentences wandering between school, family, society, slowly opens a window on the provincial and suffocating world of “the small place I grew up in”, Trinidad in the 1940s.
The buying of books was seen as a luxury, a fancy: “[T]hough as a writer I was to depend on people buying my new book, that idea of book-buying as an extravagance stayed with me for many years.” It was in this world, yet to arrive at a proper understanding of itself, that a young poet called Derek Walcott announced himself. For a while, says Naipaul, “I was full of Walcott”, but later he grew to perceive an element of distortion, of tricks used to generate sympathy, in Walcott’s verse.
Here, as elsewhere in the book, autobiography and literary observation advance hand in hand. A chapter on Anthony Powell is inlaid with memories of life in England in the 1950s and the years spent making a living from book reviews and work at the BBC; one that contrasts Gandhi’s powers of acute perception with the Indian way of “looking but not seeing” also recalls a disastrous visit made by some members of his extended family in Trinidad back to their root community in India, enshrined in myth and a false glory.
There are splendid passages on Flaubert’s “narrative splendour in Madame Bovary” and on a poem by Virgil full of details that “celebrate the physical world in an almost religious way”—Naipaul’s recapitulations of the arc of movement in these works are delicious. In its range and acuity, A Writer’s People, an exhibition of a writer seeing how other writers see, stands confidently alongside the other great works of Naipaul’s oeuvre.
The writer as a critic
Three other authors have penned their views on other authors in 2007
The Curtain by Milan Kundera
Literary criticism doesn’t come any better than Kundera, whose ‘The Curtain’ completes a trilogy after ‘The Art of the Novel’ and ‘Testaments Betrayed’. Kundera can take up a sentence from a novel and talk about it for pages or telescope 400 years of the novel’s history into a single piercing observation.
Inner Workings: Literary Essays by J.M. Coetzee
Although Coetzee carries the authority of a Nobel Prize winner in his long essays on writers, he tends to be self-effacing. The subjects of his latest book of literary essays include Graham Greene, Arthur Miller, Saul Bellow and Walter Benjamin.
Other Colours: Essays and a Story by Orhan Pamuk
Some essays from Pamuk’s new book, which released in the US on 7 September, are already available in the shape of his Nobel lecture and essays. An eagerly awaited title, expect the fine blend of literary analysis and autobiography as in Naipaul, but perhaps with a more sunny outlook.
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