Stories of blurred ancestry ...
As regular followers of this space know, I don't read very much fiction … I used to, but haven't “gone there” much over most of the past decade. I bring this up not to introduce what would be a very
rare fiction review, but to note that the author of this volume is best known for his novels, and is the recipient of a dozen or so literary awards, up to and including a Nobel Prize in Literature. This book, however is something of an auto-biographical journey through authors he has read at various points in his life, and how they influenced him along the way.
Again, regular readers of my reviews might be thinking “gee, this isn't the stuff Brendan usually gets into … what's up with it?”
, well, this is another example of leveraging the dollar store to expand the range of what I'm reading. I'd run across V.S. Naipaul's A Writer's People: Ways of Looking and Feeling
a couple of months back, and jumped into it as a change of pace.
Naipaul has a rather convoluted biography, but one that's not too odd for coming along at the last gasps of the British Empire. His family was from India, but was living in Trinidad when he was born. He moved to England to attend college and began his career as a writer. This book takes a look at five writers whose careers or writings influenced his, in one way or another. There is Caribbean poet Derek Walcott, British novelist Anthony Powell, an Indian who had emigrated to the Dutch South American colony of Surinam, Rahman Khan, French novelist Gustave Flaubert (of Madame Bovary
fame), whose chapter somehow dovetails into a discussion of Julius Caesar's The Gallic War
, and finally to Indian author Nirad Chaudhuri.
Each of these writers had something that spoke to Naipaul, as he tried to fit his experience into the wider world, trying to fit his “Indian-ness” into a world that was no longer defined by the reach of Brittannia, and how he, as a colonial product, fit in England, and into an evolving new (post-war) global reality that was far less defined than it had been a generation before. Naipaul was born in 1932, and did not go to London until after WW2, entering Oxford on a scholarship in 1950. The authors he discusses here each have a piece to the puzzle which he is trying to make sense of, from being a voice from the colonies, to being an observer of a dramatically changing world, to a witness to a personal cultural exodus, to the textures of civilization, and eventually to the great changes in India wrought by Gandhi and his contemporaries.
Naipaul weaves in and out through these chapters between biographical material, historical context, media scuttlebutt, literary criticism, and his own personal reflections. These latter elements are, of course, the core here, and are, ultimately, what A Writer's People
hinges on. Here's a bit from his discussion of Walcott:
It was something we with literary ambitions from these islands all had to face: small places with simple economies bred small people with simple destinies. And these islands were very small, infinitely smaller than Ibsen's Norway. Their literary possibilities, like their economic possibilities, were as narrow as their human possibilities. Ibsen's Norway, provincial as it was, had bankers, editors, scholars, high-reaching people. There was nothing of this human wealth in the islands. They didn't give a fiction-writer or a poet much to write about; they cramped and quickly exhausted a talent which in a larger and more varied space might have spread its wings and done unsuspected things.
It was a literary blight that in varying ways affected other places as well: big countries that for political or other reasons had become hard to write about as they were. So Camus in the 1940s could cleanse Algeria of Arabs; and twenty or thirty years later some South African writers, fatigued by the theme of race, with its inevitabilities, its pressures to do the right thing, could seek to create a race-free no man's land to give room to their private imaginings.
There are few straight paths here … the narrative meanders through back alleys and tea rooms, across continents. The author turns his contacts and influences over and inside out to see what they're about and then reflects on what they mean, and what they mean to him. In the intro to the chapter about his early career in London, he notes:
I grew up on an island like Walcott's. Other races were close, but for my first five or six years, in the 1930s, I lived in a transplanted peasant India. This India was being washed away by the stringencies of our colonial life, but it still felt whole, and this gave me a base of feeling and cultural knowledge which even members of my family who came later didn't have. This base of feeling has lasted all my life. I think it is true to say that, in the beginning, living in this unusual India, I saw people of other groups but at the same time didn't see them. This made me receptive to my father's stories of a self-contained local Indian life and the healing power of Indian ritual. I was more than receptive to these stories; I was greatly moved by them. I saw them being written and was dazzled by them.
One thing to point out here was that not only his father, but a number of his relatives were authors, so writing, and the written word were things close to Naipaul's personal identity (perhaps explaining the support of his law-student cousin in his early years of writing in London – where many other families would have been screaming for him to enter commerce!). But the concept, if not the sub-continent, of India hovers over much of the book, in people's actions, perceptions, and realities.
Little by little the India of myth was chipped away, and India became a place of destitution from which we were lucky to have got away. I went myself when I was twenty-nine. I went from England; at that time I was eleven years out of Trinidad. And still I went to that second India, the India from which we had to get away and not to the India of independence and the great names of the independence movement. I went with jangling nerves, which became worse the closer the ship got to Bombay.
The look at Flaubert, Caesar, and Virgil, is a bit harder to fit to the general arc of A Writer's People
as it deals more with literary criticism, the technology
of the writing, if you will. Naipaul contrasts the composition of Madame Bovary
with the far more florid and detailed Salammbo
, and considers the classical sources of the latter's story … but this exists more as an academic exercise rather than his own self-searching:
Ambition makes a writer reach beyond what he has already achieved. And this is when, out of his security, he can make misjudgements. This misjudgement might have to do with something small, so as a matter of style, a way of writing that has crept up on a writer. Sometimes it is more serious, the very conception of a book. The more the writer feels ill at ease, the harder he tries, using all the resources of his talent, to prove his point; and then, seeing him suffer to do so, one is more than half in sympathy with him.
I wonder if the author is wondering if he's successfully maintaining his
aim here, as this part of the book seems to drift far afield, except as a look a how one can mine research and lose one's authenticity. To risk making too much of a drift myself here, I did want to make a note on a detail that he references that I found fascinating, as it plays into the Gurdjieff teachings: “'The souls of the dead,' he said, 'are dissolved in the moon as corpses are in the earth. Their tears provide its moisture; it is a dark place full of mud, ruins, and storms...'”
, this in a quotation that he describes as arising from “bad nineteenth-century fiction, gothic, orientalist ...”
, which makes me wonder how the two might have been connected (if at all).A Writer's People
does not come to a solid conclusion, but ends with some statements:
India remains hidden. Indian writers, to speak generally, seem to know only about their own 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 …
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. …
India's poverty and colonial past, the riddle of the two civilizations, continue to stand in the way of identity and strength and intellectual growth.
This is a very richly written book, which engages the reader in its bits and pieces, but lacks an overall feeling as a whole. It is fascinating in its details, but feels more like a collection of disparate parts. It is still in print, and can be ordered from the on-line big boys for its full cover price, but since it had run through the dollar store channel, you can find new
copies via the new/used guys for as little as 14¢ (plus shipping), and you might still be able to find it at the Dollar Tree stores for a buck. I enjoyed reading this but it's probably most appealing to those with an interest in Indian culture, the decline of the British Empire, and the various literary threads that run through it.