Thirty-two years ago, V.S. Naipaul went to India for this paper to write about the collapse of its post-independence experiment in democracy. Nehru’s daughter, Indira Gandhi, had declared an emergency and suspended the constitution. Naipaul took this to be a major turning point, and possibly a salutary one, for a sick culture in need of shock therapy. One of his articles explored the notion that Indians experience the world in ways drastically different from those of most Westerners: that Indians were typically more self-absorbed, less observant, more instinctive; in other words, that they were ill-adapted, in their basic consciousness, to the modern world. “India: A Defect of Vision” is what he called that essay.
Naipaul’s latest volume is a set of variations and meditations on that theme. One of its chapters is called “Looking and Not Seeing: The Indian Way,” but this time, in his characteristic preoccupation with what his subtitle terms “ways of looking and feeling,” he journeys far beyond the subcontinent. A Writer’s People is amazingly concise, as Naipaul can be, but also wide-ranging and tightly packed, a kind of literary Rubik’s Cube, made up of small, exquisitely beveled pieces, with no obvious points of contact, that he manages to fit together effortlessly. At one moment, we go from Nehru’s thoughts about Gandhi to the author’s mother and her experience on her first visit to their ancestral village. A few pages later, we’re into Flaubert and the embrace of concrete French realities that made possible the glorious, seemingly transparent second chapter of Madame Bovary, which then is contrasted to the overblown failure of Salammbô. By a natural progression that brings us to Polybius, only a couple of steps away from Virgil and, leaving the Aeneid aside, his poem “Moretum,” which Naipaul celebrates for its grasp of the physical details of life in this world. Then we’re back on the Gangetic Plain in 1925, observing the young Aldous Huxley observing Gandhi at a political gathering.
Something deeper is going on here, we gather, than free association. The prospector is digging along a vein he has worked before. Much of it still sparkles. The subtitle declares his purpose more directly than the title. The “writer’s people” are living and dead, ancient and modern, Eastern and Western, encountered in life or on the printed page. All that connects them, finally, is his intense interest in their “ways of looking and feeling” as an index, finally, to the unfolding of his own. At seventy-five, Naipaul traces the map of his own intellectual and artistic journey, implicitly asking how he escaped the provincialism of island life in the Caribbean (“small places with simple economies” breeding “small people with simple destinies”) and the equally provincial trap of literary London.
The youth who came from Trinidad to the metropolis “in a cloud of not-knowing” picks up negative lessons from writers he encounters and reads. He acquires “an ability to discard” highly esteemed literary models …