The prolific Trinidadian V. S. Naipaul, 2001 Nobel laureate and longtime resident of England, is best known for his range—popular titles include A Bend in the River, India: A Wounded Civilization, A House for Mr. Biswas, and Magic Seeds ( Mar/Apr 2005)—and his outspoken views on literature and culture. A Writer’s People was first published last year in England to mark Naipaul’s 75th birthday. (See our Book by Book Profile of Naipaul in our Summer 2002 issue.)
The Topic: V. S. Naipaul’s work always comments on the herculean task of "fitting one civilization to another," and in A Writer’s People, the author looks back—not always fondly—on some of his disparate literary influences, including Derek Walcott, Gustave Flaubert, Anthony Powell, E. M. Forster, and Francis Wyndham. These essays also go far afield—all in an attempt at "different ways of looking." They include commentary on shifting identity, Caesar’s The Gallic War and Virgil’s Aeneid, the rise of Gandhi, and Indian writers and the ways they portray their country to the outside world. Naipaul also explores his own history: his family, his childhood in Trinidad, his time at Oxford, and a subsequent job at the BBC. A Writer’s People is a study of the contradictions between the myth and the reality of an India that remains unknowable—and that still defines the enigmatic Naipaul.
Knopf. 189 pages. $24.95. ISBN: 0375407383
"You can always sense if not describe great writing. … V.S. Naipaul has always written this way, paring down his sentences, stripping them to declarative narrative in a kind of hard-edged, luminous purity." Sam Coale
"As always, just as one might give up on [Naipaul], come moments in this new collection when self-absorption, afflicted by genius, turns into a visionary vantage over the wider human condition. … It is his lifelong journey away from Trinidad that is the heart of the collection." Richard Eder
NY Times Book Review
"Even if, in this book, [Naipaul’s] oddly skewed and more than a little self-referential views take up too much space, his work over the past half-century entitles him to those views, especially since they may have been the fertile mistake from which his best writing has emerged. … What remains impressive, even in this disappointing book, is Naipaul’s sense of wonder at the worlds he has discovered." David Rieff
"Readers who pick [A Writer’s People] up hoping for the mellow reflections of the novelist, whose ample international stature was enhanced by the Nobel Prize for literature in 2001, will be nonplussed by the way he mixes intelligent criticism and perceptive observation with bilious dismissals of other writers. The result is by turns illuminating and exasperating." Desmond Ryan
"[Naipaul’s] still slapping away in his latest effort—five slack, meandering essays collected under the vague title A Writer’s People—but his touch has become rough and his targets soft. … Even as you recoil from his judgments, it’s impossible not to admire the prose." David Laskin
Critics have always, understandably, had a difficult time separating V. S. Naipaul’s personality from his work, and the author’s arrogance and solipsism often come under fire, particularly when he attacks fellow writers. For example, in an essay on fellow Nobel laureate and Trinidadian Derek Walcott, Naipaul questions his countryman’s recent output. As the Philadelphia Inquirer points out, however, Naipaul "blithely ignores the fact that the same point has been made about his own work." A good measure of Naipaul’s genius with language might be the reason why, despite reviews sometimes savaging the author’s beliefs, critics nearly always find time to praise Naipaul’s writing, "effortless, without strain, clear, and authoritative" (Providence Journal). Although A Writer’s People will not be remembered as Naipaul’s best book, he clearly hasn’t lost his knack for drawing a crowd.