Saturday, February 26, 2011
A Writer's People by V S Naipaul
The book contains five essays that deal with many figures, mostly literary ones. There is an essay on Mahatma Gandhi, the only non-literary figure in this collection, which is the most fascinating chapter of the book. But Gandhi too was a writer. His autobiography, with its simplicity, directness and naked honesty, has greatly impressed Naipaul.
In the book's first chapter, The worm in the bud, Naipaul discusses his early days in Trinidad and how he became aware of Trinidadian writing and writers: Derek Walcott, Edgar Mittelholzer, Samuel Selvon, and his own father, Sreepersad.
Early on, Naipaul had realised the literary barrenness and lack of culture in Trinidad; he was in sixth standard when this precocious student understood the futility of a career in writing in the small place: "As always in these in colonial places, there were little reading and writing groups here and there, now and then: harmless pools of vanity that came and went and didn't add up to anything like an organised or solid literary or cultural life." Naturally, he needed to get away from the smallness of a place like Trinidad.
To have come from a small island like Trinidad, without the human wealth of Ibsen's Norway, there seemed to be nothing but a literary cul-se-sac for writers from Naipaul's Trinidad. "Small places with simple economies bred small people with simple destinies," he writes.
Walcott had become a local figure--his poetry was appreciated in his home island. But the local figure had to endure a kind of humiliation. He was tormented by his job on the local Sunday paper: "It would have been humiliating for him to be bossed around by people he saw as his inferiors."
Naipaul talks of a spiritual emptiness that poets such as Walcott had to face in the island. "The spiritual emptiness was a problem for everyone from the plantation territories who wanted to write," he says. "Many were destroyed or silenced by it."
Walcott found his own way around that emptiness. How? "He began to fit his island material to older, foreign work. He might take an old Spanish play, say, and re-work it as a local play: Shakespeare's method."
Naipaul does not approve of this borrowing. "It is the better and truer part of the labour of a writer from a new place to work out what his material is, to wring substance from the unwritten-about and unregarded local scene," he says.
International success was not coming soon to Walcott. He had exhausted the first flush of his talent by singing praises of the spiritual emptiness of the place. He had been promising for too damn long. He needed a job; he had become ordinary. To Naipaul, if you are a writer or a poet and you are in need of a job, you are ordinary.
A writer lives principally for his writing
In the same essay, Naipaul writes about other Trinidadian writers. Edgar Mittelholzer was a mulatto, and wrote a well-regarded novel, A Morning at the Office. Later in life, he set himself on fire in London, like a Buddhist monk in Vietnam. Naipaul thought he was a dedicated writer and his self-immolation was shocking for him.
Samuel Selvon was a Trinidadian writer. In 1951, he published his first novel, A Brighter Sun. "It is hard to be the first with any kind of writing, and Selvon in this book burnt up his simple material," Naipaul comments. In far-off London, Selvon lost touch with his material. He became wordy and absurd: "The prosiness, piety and self-regard were intolerable."
On Naipaul's own father, Sreepersad, he says that he damaged his material when he tried to fit it to what he thought of as a story: the trick ending, say. "In fact," he writes, "if he could have taken a step back, he would have seen that there were more things to write about...but probably that step back into the bad colonial setting would have caused him pain, and pain was something he didn't wish to face in his writing."
An English way of look
The book's second chapter is on Naipaul's friendship with novelist Anthony Powell.
He begins the chapter thus: "He was fifty-two, at the peak of his reputation, and I was twenty-five and awkward, poor in London, with one book published. For a reason I couldn't understand--there was every kind of difference between us--he offered his friendship."
Naipaul was not particularly impressed with Powell's novels. He thought they were extraordinary failures in many respects. He thought his writing didn't undermine his subjects--a hallmark of good writing.
But he cherished his friendship with Powell. Powell was the editor of Punch and he had loved Naipaul's first novel. On this Naipaul says: "It turned out that he had not only sent the book out for review; he had read it. This was more than I expected. He then said something which I thought very wise...He said that, whatever its flaws, a writer's first novel had a lyrical quality which the writer would never again recapture." In this literary judgment, Naipaul found a depth of civilization.
He appreciated Powell's (Tony) good nature, the absence of malice in him. "I had longed to get away from the easy malice of the small place I grew up in, where all judgments were moralistic and hateful and corrupting, the judgments of gossip," he writes. "But so far I hadn't been lucky in England." He had found people in the University and at BBC mean and provincial for the most part.
In his essay, Naipaul wonders why Powell wrote and why he had got started on the writing life and why he had stayed (many start, few stay), and whether there was a true need. "His writing didn't seem to come out of need," he writes. "He seemed to have risked nothing...Unlike Greene and Orwell and Waugh at no stage did he go to meet the world. His conviction was that his world was enough."
There is a lesson for the young writers here. How many of you go out to meet the world?
Overliterate societies have their own snares, Naipaul says. By 1930s, when Tony was beginning, very little about the great European societies (Dickens's England, Tolstoy's Russia and Balzac's France) had been left unsaid. "These societies," Naipaul observes, "had been diminished for various reasons -- war, revolution; and the world around these once unchallenged societies had grown steadily larger." Then Naipaul makes a very acute observation. He says: "A society's unspoken theme is always itself; it has an idea where it stands in the world. A diminished society couldn't be written about in the old way, of social comment."
Books do not live if they are not original, he says. If you do what has been done before, your book is not going to survive. It is hard to be the first (Naipaul's father's problem). It is possibly harder to come near the end. That was Tony's challenge.
In his later life, like Waugh, Tony moved to the English countryside--it was like withdrawal from life. To live in the English countryside, he says, was to be sheltered and creatively to die.
Looking and not seeing: The Indian way
The third chapter of the book is about the Indian way of looking. Mark his words: he says looking but not seeing. The chapter mainly dwells on three writers: an Indian indentured labourer, Rahman Khan's autobiography, Jeevan Prakash (The Light of Life)--Rahman was a teacher of Hindu scriptures and a labourer in Surinam; Gandhi and Nehru. He describes Gandhi through the eyes of Aldous Huxley. He talks about Gandhi's years in London and his various experiments with food and so on.
He sees Gandhi's journey (through England and South Africa) akin to that of Bhuddha's--a spiritual journey. Gandhi's rebellion was not of the European kind. "The theme of rebellion is one of the great themes of Western European literature," he writes. "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 to make room for him." Gandhi's rebellion starts with small, manageable political aims but as his vision widens, the nature of his rebellion grows.
This chapter is on Flaubert and his novel Salammbo, a retelling of the rebellion of mercenaries in Carthage, the tale extracted from the work of the Greek historian Polybius (200-118 BC). Naipaul admires Falubert's style in Madame Bovary, but is not impressed with his accomplishment in Salammbo. In Madame Bovary, Naipaul notes, the language is plain and clean and brief. "The elegance and the drama lay in the spare, unexpected detail...this was what caught at the reader." This was prose that had to be read slowly, he says.
Bovary was grey, Salammbo purple. Naipaul thus contrasts the two novels: "It seems quite another writer--someone coarser, steeped in nineteenth-century orientalism and melodrama--who, five years later, published Salammbo."
Naipaul sees the novel's failure as an indication of Falubert's over-ambitiousness. "Ambition makes a writer reach beyond what he has achieved," he remarks.
In passing, Naipaul strikes at Flaubert's publicity-seeking nature: "He was an early self-publicist. He wished people to know that his writing didn't come easily, like Balzac's. It took time, and was original."
India again: the Mahatma and after
The last chapter has many curious characters: Gandhi, Vinobha Bhave (he calls him a foolish man), and Nirad C. Chaudhuri.
He considers the early part of Chaudhuri's Autobiography brilliant but when it comes to scholarship, he meets Naipaul's disapproval, even scorn. "He was no scholar," Naipaul says of the Bengali intellectual.
It is the last three pages of the novel that interested me in a great way. They deal with the contemporary writing scene in India. "Sixty years after independence that problem (fitting one civilization to another) is still there," he says. "India has no autonomous intellectual life...now they look away from India for ultimate fulfilment. They look in the main to Britain and the United States...That's where the better jobs are, where Indians are well thought of, and that is where people of a certain level wish to live and marry--and make cookies and shovel snow off the pavement in winter--and educate their children."
Naipaul makes some valid criticisms of the new Indian writing that has emerged from, especially, the Indian Diaspora:
1. These novels are by and large autobiographical, family stories with daddyji and mamaji, and nanee and chacha, against a backdrop of extended Indian families. Each extended family produces a writer. "One writer, one book: it may not build a literature, but it is a system that allows new writers and new families to come up all the time."
2. Is this writing just old fashioned Indian boasting? he asks. Is it something new, a new awakening, or just a part of publishing culture in Britain and the US? "The question has to be asked," he insists, "because no national literature has ever been created like this, at such a remove, where the books are published by people outside, judged by people outside, and to a large extent read by people outside."
3. The new Indian writers, Naipaul claims, are trying to imitate other successful writers (after getting educated in the West). "They are not bursting with the wish to say anything," he writes. "They are guided in the main by imitation." Should they be Irish or German or should they indulge in wordplay (swipe at Rushdie?) or should they try magic realism? And I like this one: "Should they be like the late Raymond Carver and pretend they know nothing about anything?"
"This is where India begins to get lost. The writing school's India is like the writing school's America or Maoist China or Haiti."
Naipaul's judgment is final and it is harsh: "India has no means of judging. India is hard and materialist. 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."
On the last point, I think Naipaul's views need not be as hidebound and pessimistic as they are. Things are changing in India. While the expat Indian writer is still accorded respect, homegrown writers of quality are emerging too. However, as in the West, there is no exclusive respect for the literary writer anymore. For if you can honour an ordinary hack just because he is on the bestseller list, what point is there in your honour for the literary type who has taken enormous risks with his life (and not just chucked his lucrative consulting or banking job). Perhaps, like your politicians and actors, you get the writers you deserve.