A Writer's People - Ways of Seeing and Feeling

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 14 October, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 14 October, 2007, 12:00am

A Writer's People - Ways of Seeing and Feeling

by V. S. Naipaul

Picador, HK$280

Trinidad's Vidiadhar Surajprasad (V.S.) Naipaul published his first novel, The Mystic Masseur, 50 years ago this year.

In the space of his 15 novels and 17 volumes of non-fiction, he won the Booker Prize for In a Free State (1971), was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II (1990) and received the Nobel Prize for Literature (2001).

The Nobel Committee said he was 'a modern philosopher' whose authority as a narrator was 'grounded in the memory of what others have forgotten, the history of the vanquished'.

A giant of literature and having just turned 75, Naipaul has a few things he'd like to get off his chest: principally, that what tends to pass for modern literature nowadays is little more than manufactured junk.

'Every kind of writing is the product of a specific historical and cultural vision,' he says early in his memoir/essay, A Writer's People - Ways of Seeing and Feeling. 'But the self-serving 'writing schools' of the United States and England think otherwise. They decree that a certain artificial way of writing narrative prose (which is a general way now and in 20 or 30 years will almost certainly appear old-fashioned) is the correct way.'

In a withering paragraph, he reveals the formula for writing many readers will instantly recognise. 'Chinese and Indian and African experience sifted down into this writing-school mill comes out looking and feeling American and modern. These writing-school writers are all given the same modern personality, and that is part of their triumph.'

Singled out for particular scorn are India's writers. 'Every Indian who looks within himself finds the matter for a family story, with great characters, daddyji and mamaji and nanee and chacha, against a background of the extended Indian family,' he says. 'Since no writer can have two extended families, these novels appear to be rationed, one per writer. One writer, one book. It may not build a literature, but it is a system that allows new writers and families to come up all the time.'

Are these books part of 'a new Indian literary awakening' that will help India 'to understand its more complicated self, to develop an autonomous cultural life, to bridge the gap between native and evolved?'

Naipaul thinks not. India's writers 'seem to know only about their families and their places of work. It is the Indian way of living and consequently the Indian way of seeing. The rest of the country is taken for granted and seen superficially.'

This is, he concedes, nothing new. He explores the example of the young Nehru, who was to become independent India's first prime minister in 1947, who was almost entirely unaware of the conditions in which poor farmers lived until they went to his home town of Allahabad in June 1920 and asked him to see for himself their desperate lives.

Naipaul goes on to examine - through the meticulous observations of Nehru and a young Aldous Huxley - the Mahatma and how he was able to fashion, through his sometimes brutal and often naive experiences in South Africa, a powerful movement that sought to change all India. His greatness was that he wasn't clever enough to know he couldn't succeed.

'The theme of rebellion is one of the great themes of western European literature. The true modern novel arises when the rebel, the man apart, feels himself strong enough to take on the established order, and when that order is fluid enough and secure enough to make room for him.'

Where are these books? 'India is hard and materialistic. What it knows best about Indian writers and books are their advances and their prizes. There is little discussion about the substance of a book or its literary quality or the point of view of the writer.' His pronouncement is harsh, that 'India's poverty and colonial past, the riddle of the two civilisations, continue to stand in the way of identity and strength and intellectual growth'.

Taken on its own, such a conclusion may appear curmudgeonly. But coming as it does from a writer with all the qualities his perceived India would seem to respect, Naipaul is challenging young writers to do more than imitate authors. 'The writing school's India is like the writing school's America or Maoist China or Haiti. They're not bursting with a wish to say anything.'

Naipaul says in his brief introduction to A Writer's People that it was his recollections of the perfect view he had as a child of the street and the people in front of his grandmother's house in Trinidad's Port of Spain that 'gave me my first book'.

'I knew even then that there were other ways of looking; that if, so to speak, I took a step or two or three back and saw more of the setting, it would require another kind of writing,' he says.

'All my life I have had to think about ways of looking and how they alter the configuration of the world.'