A Writer's People, by VS Naipaul

Portrait of the artist as a gleeful grump
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The Independent Culture

"But getting back to your wretched book," the horrified VS Naipaul overheard himself saying to a fellow-Caribbean writer on BBC radio in 1955. He later blamed his own shocking rudeness on the other man's affectation and self-regard. Such failings hurt Naipaul bodily. Exactly this fastidiousness, together with a yearning for a larger world, had caused him to abandon anxious Trinidad, where he came of poor Brahmin Indian stock, for England aged 18, five years before. In Trinidad the fine arts flourished "only on irregular Thursdays".

Not that this country satisfied him. Oxford was "small". So was the BBC. But around other writers he found a new amplitude and happiness, so that England has held him ever since, a deracinated observer of post-colonial pain. He was taken up by the novelist Anthony Powell, whose good friend he became, who got him reviewing jobs. Speaking of this friendship he pauses to tell us that his purpose here is neither literary criticism nor biography; but to set out some of the writing that has influenced him. A Writer's People is to be a sentimental education, the story of how as a writer he has learnt to look and see.

He has thought hard about perspective, but five short chapters is insufficient for this mission. This book moves from Trinidad to the UK and India, from Flaubert's success in Madame Bovary to his failure in Salammbo, set in ancient Carthage. There is much discussion of blindness and sight, and disquisitions on how Romans killed – flogging then beheading – and on the sole black African specified in Latin verse, a slave in Virgil who watches her impoverished owner assemble a wonderfully detailed meal to survive one further day.

What you take away are such portraits. The first is Powell's, a touchingly generous host who delighted in his friends, but whose writing Naipaul found cosy and formulaic. Powell represents that outdated world Naipaul came here to supersede; and in winning the Nobel Prize may be said to have succeeded. Although he avoids saying so, he finds it an offence that Naipaul's father – the original for Mr Biswas – failed while insular Powell found success.

The second is Mahatma Gandhi, like Naipaul both a man of limited origins and also part of the Indian diaspora, who lived his impressionable years in South Africa. Gandhi invented himself out of very different kinds of reading: Ruskin's idea of labour, Thoreau and Tolstoy's simple-lifery, the Manchester No-Breakfast Association, together with his mother's propensity for fasting. Indians assume they possess Gandhi; Naipaul shows how they don't, and he distrusts Gandhi's paraphernalia of holy poverty for its rationalisation of suffering. Yet he helps the reader - despite gasping at his sheer oddity - still to admire Gandhi's greatness.

Both Gandhi and Naipaul have about them an epic simplicity. Naipaul is also an invigorating pessimist. Perhaps a cultured person today needs to be. His view of India is dark, and Indian conformism, he implies, has had much to answer for. Though he admires the Buddha, Buddhism leaves him cold. Then Muslim imperialism ruined India: unlike the British, the Moghuls left behind them not even one school.

About the wretchedness of India he has nothing consoling to say; nor much that is hopeful about India's growing prosperity. He sees India's newest literature as a client-culture, marketed in London and New York. Naipaul writes wonderfully well. He is opinionated, tells gripping stories, loves beyond all else the specificity of details. He is a joy to read.

Peter J Conradi's Life of Iris Murdoch is published by HarperCollins

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