Tuesday, October 02, 2007

"A selection of rambles around very familiar themes"

I'm going to have to at least take a look at V. S. Naipaul's new book, A Writer's People, even if I don't buy it, because all the early reviews have mentioned Naipaul's dismissal of Anthony Powell--an impressively ungenerous act, considering that the two were friends for decades.

If A. N. Wilson--himself seemingly a cranky bastard of the first order, but far more entertaining these days than Naipaul--is correct in this piece for the Telegraph, Naipaul's critique of Powell is insubstantial and unconvincing. Wilson cites the particularly damning (and, in the case of late Naipaul, not surprising) point that Naipaul seems to have completely missed Powell's comedy, a form at which Powell is equalled only by a handful of other writers I know. Wilson's overall take, expressed with typical bluntness, is that Naipaul
seems to have slipped from being a great writer who is occasionally idiotic into being an old bore who does not know when he is making a fool of himself,
which does seem to be a good description of someone who goes around telling everyone that the novel "has run out of things to say."

I do very much like some of Naipaul's work, in particular The Enigma of Arrival (1987), which at the time I first read it seemed to share a tone, and possibly even a heart, with Sarah Orne Jewett's The Country of the Pointed Firs (1896), a book I reread with much pleasure. Naipaul's and Jewett's narrators both describe remote places--rural England and the desolate fishing villages of Maine, respectively--where they are outsiders; but that very position of exclusion allows them to focus their penetrating attention to really see and understand these beautiful locales, with their rich history and uncertain future. Both narrators seem barely removed from their creators, and while neither they nor their creators are ever quite able to feel at home in these places, through their attention they allow us to do so. I'm drawing on decade-old memories of reading the books back-to-back, but my memory is of a connection as strong as it was unexpected, an undeniable kinship stretching across a century.

Naipaul's book on the American South, A Turn in the South (1989), on the other hand, struck me as an interesting, useful book for anyone who was already familiar with the South--someone, for example, who like me grew up just north of the Mason-Dixon line. His outsider's approach, in this case, helps us to see the familiar anew. But while I'm no fan of Southern history or culture, I think it likely that someone approaching Naipaul's book without some local knowledge would come away with both a slightly incorrect and a slightly harsher opinion of the region than is appropriate--which made me wonder about the quality of the confident judgments and pronouncements that fill his book about traveling in some Muslim nations, Among the Believers (1981).

Oddly, I've never read the novel that many consider Naipaul's masterpiece, A House for Mr. Biswas (1961). Perhaps once I've looked at his piece on Powell, if I find myself agreeing with A. N. Wilson that Naipaul has descended to simply "making an ass of himself," I'll give Mr. Biswas a try. Though it's sad to watch a sharp thinker and talented writer go wrong, it's useful to remind oneself that their good work in the past remains. Knowing about their present activities will change how we read the work--there's no way around that--but it takes a near-superhuman effort of idiocy to fully destroy a good book.


  1. Biswas really is an extraordinary novel, you must read it. I loved Naipaul for a long time but the last ten years or so have been a trial...

    Levi, will you not give us a post about marathon training sometime?!?

  2. That's terrible! (Not marathon training, but Naipaul vs. Powell.)