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LITERARY ESSAYS

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Reviewed by Sven Birkerts
Sunday, July 20, 2008

A WRITER'S PEOPLE

Ways of Looking and Feeling

This Story

By V.S. Naipaul

Knopf. 189 pp. $24.95

One of the perquisites of achieved greatness might be the freedom to let go, to relax from the exertions that had so much to do with getting there. This natural tendency, less charitably known as coasting, could help explain why V.S. Naipaul's recent works -- the novel Magic Seeds and two collections of essays, Literary Occasions and now A Writer's People: Ways of Looking and Feeling -- feel so un-Naipaulian. The force that propelled such novels as A Bend in the River and Guerrillas, as well as scourging documentary nonfiction like Among the Believers, has slackened. In place of the Nobel Prize winner's signature directness, we find an insistent digressiveness. Naipaul's voice too often sounds querulous, unable or unwilling to build toward an indictment. It has become a kind of distracted grumbling.

A Writer's People comprises five essays, reflecting on, in sequence, a cluster of writers from the Caribbean; Naipaul's complicated friendship with novelist Anthony Powell; the Indian "way of seeing"; Flaubert's SalammbĂ´ and the historical imagination; and, again, India, in particular its difficulty surmounting its colonial past.

The first piece, "The Worm in the Bud," is emblematic of his current discursive mode of essaying. (To be fair, we should keep in mind that at its origins, in Montaigne, the essay form was nothing if not discursive.) Naipaul begins by looking back to 1949, to the appearance in his circumscribed world (he was born in Trinidad of Indian descent) of a small book by an ambitious poet from nearby Saint Lucia named Derek Walcott. He remarks what a splash, relatively speaking, the book made, and in the process reveals exactly how provincial the Caribbean literary universe was. When he himself read Walcott's work a few years later, he beheld his home-world and was enthralled: The "sight of fishermen, silhouettes in the fast-fading dusk . . . was something we all knew. Reading these poems in London in 1955, I thought I could understand how important Pushkin was to the Russians, doing for them what hadn't been done before."

This is as generous as the author gets. So far as he can see, Walcott more or less realized his greatness in that early work, and for the rest of his career, which of course includes the 1992 Nobel Prize in Literature (Naipaul got his Nobel in 2001), he looked to fit himself to more cosmopolitan templates. Naipaul's implication is that the vast output that followed was a denouement, in some way even a betrayal, of what was greatest in the poet. Nowhere does he attempt to reckon with Walcott's changing ambitions. It is almost as if Naipaul cannot allow his fellow islander a place by his side on the dais.

Much of the rest of that first essay looks at the frustrations and failures of what might have been comparably worthy careers, including those of the Guyanese novelist Edgar Mittelholzer, the Trinidadian writer Samuel Selvon and Naipaul's own father. The latter, a newspaper correspondent with literary aspirations -- his son drew his portrait in his great early novel A House for Mr. Biswas-- misdirected his gift of observation and evocation by pitching his stories toward what he saw as the requirements of the larger (American and English) market, outfitting them with trick endings in the O'Henry mode.

This is the theme throughout: the overpowering of natural or indigenous ways of looking and feeling by the dominant, or imperial, expectation. Naipaul sees cultural self-subversion at work in the writers mentioned, but he also marks it as the impulse that undermines not only the Indian diaspora in his native Trinidad but also the developing culture of India after independence.

In "Looking and Not Seeing: The Indian Way," he anatomizes an island population that in the space of a generation had cut itself off from its memories. For Indian emigrants, the homeland very quickly became myth, unreal, at least until travel became possible after World War II. "Little by little," Naipaul writes, "the India of myth was chipped away, and India became a place of destitution from which we were lucky to have got away." That destitution is the subject of his two searing books of reportage, India: A Wounded Civilization and India: A Million Mutinies Now.

The rest of A Writer's People is likewise bent upon the piercing of illusions, particularly the concluding essay, "India Again: The Mahatma and After," which makes the case that Gandhi owed his success in part to the credulity of the Indian people, who projected their great hunger for coherence upon what was in fact a grab bag of policies and personal traits: "He was full of bits and pieces he had picked up here and there." The people saw what they wanted to see in his spinning wheel, his poor man's garb. And for Naipaul this is yet another instance of the refusal to see the truth that has marked the Indian way of looking, and that has fueled his own insistently compensatory agenda. ·

Sven Birkerts is the author of eight books, most recently "The Art of Time in Memoir: Then, Again." He is the director of the Bennington Writing Seminars.


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