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A Writer's People: Ways of Looking and Feeling

Naipaul, V.S. Author

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In his first book of non-fiction since 2003, V.S. Naipaul gives us an eloquent, candid, wide-ranging narrative that delves into the sometimes inadvertent process of creative and intellectual assimilation.

Born in Trinidad of Indian descent, a resident of England for his entire adult life, and a prodigious traveller, Nobel Laureate V. S. Naipaul has always faced the challenges of “fitting one civilisation to another.” In A Writer’s People, he discusses the writers to whom he was exposed early on, Derek Walcott, Flaubert and his own father among them; how Anthony Powell and Francis Wyndham influenced his first encounters with literary culture; what we have retained–and forgotten–of the world portrayed in Caesar’s The Gallic War and Virgil’s Aeneid; how the writings of Gandhi, Nehru and other Indian writers both reveal and conceal the authors and their nation. And he brings the same scrutiny to bear on his own life: his years in Trinidad; the gaps in his family history; the “private India” kept alive through story, ritual, religion and culture; his ever-evolving reaction to the more complicated and demanding true India he would encounter for the first time when he was thirty.

Part meditation, part remembrance, as elegant as it is revelatory, A Writer’s People allows us privileged insight–full of incident, humour and feeling–into the mind of one of our greatest writers.

“He brings to non-fiction an extraordinary capacity for making art out of lucid thought. . . . I can no longer imagine the world without Naipaul’s writing.” Los Angeles Times Book Review


From the Hardcover edition.

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About the Author:

V. S. Naipaul was born in Trinidad in 1932. He went to England on a scholarship in 1950. After four years at University College, Oxford, he began to write, and since then has followed no other profession. He has published more than twenty books of fiction and nonfiction, including Half a Life; A House for Mr. Biswas; A Bend in the River; Magic Seeds and a collection of letters, Between Father and Son. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2001.


From the Hardcover edition.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

The Worm in the Bud

Early in 1949, in Trinidad, near the end of my schooldays, word came to us in the sixth form of Queen’s Royal College that there was a serious young poet in one of the smaller islands to the north who had just published a marvellous first book of poems. We had never had news like this before, not about a new book of poetry or about any kind of book; and I still wonder by what means this news could have reached us.

We were a small, mainly agricultural colony and we said all the time, without unhappiness, that we were a dot on the map of the world. It was a liberating thing to be, and we were really very small. There were just over half a million of us. We were racially much divided. On the island, small though we were, the living half-cultures or quarter-cultures of colonial Europe and immigrant Asia knew almost nothing of one another; a transported Africa was the presence all around us, like the sea. Only segments of our varied population were educated, and in the restricted local way, which we in the sixth form understood very well: we could see the professional or career cul-de-sacs to which our education was leading us.

As always in these colonial places, there were little reading and writing groups here and there, now and then: harmless pools of vanity that came and went and didn’t add up to anything like an organised or solid literary or cultural life. It seemed unlikely that there were people out there who were guardians of the life of the mind, were watching out for new movements, and could make a serious judgement about a new book of poetry.

But in the strangest way something like that had happened. The young poet became famous among us. He came from the island of St. Lucia. If Trinidad was a dot on the map of the world, it could be said that St. Lucia was a dot on that dot. And he had had his book published in Barbados. For island people the sea was a great divider: it led to different landscapes, different kinds of houses, people always slightly racially different, with strange accents. But the young poet and his book had overcome all of that: it was as though, as in a Victorian homily, virtue and dedication had made its way against the odds.

There might have been other promptings. There was much talk at the time about cherishing our local island “culture”; it was when I grew to hate the word. This talk focused on a talented dance group called the Little Carib (operating in a residential house not far from where I lived), and on the steel band, the improvised and extraordinary music-making of the back streets, done on oil drums and scrap metal, which had developed in Trinidad during the war. With these rare things, it was felt, local people would no longer go empty-handed into the community of nations; they would have something of their own to proclaim and be able at last to stand as men and possess their souls in peace.

Many who looked for this kind of comfort were actually the better-off, middle class and higher, in various ways racially mixed, in good jobs, but with no strong racial affili- ation, not wholly African, not European, not Asian, people who had no home but the island. A generation or so before they would have been content to be neither black nor Asian. But now they had begun to suffer in their jobs and in their persons from what, with their success, they saw more clearly as colonial disrespect. They were no longer content to hide, to be grateful for small mercies; they wanted more for themselves.

The talk about a local culture, the steel band and the dance, also came from people with political ambitions. Such talk could flatter a potential black electorate. The franchise was still restricted; but it was known that self-government was coming. Someone who spoke and wrote a lot about the culture was a man called Albert Gomes. He was a city politician who aimed to go higher. He was Portuguese and enormously fat. The fat did him no harm; it made him a character, easily recognisable in the city, much talked about (even in our sixth form), and much loved by the black people in the streets, who at that time, in the 1940s, strange as it might appear, still had no black leader. Albert Gomes saw himself as that leader. As a black leader in the city he had a hard anti-Asian, anti-Indian line; Indians were country people and no part of his constituency. I heard that at one time he smoked a pipe, wore a walrus moustache, and tried to look like Stalin.

Before he came to politics he was a man of culture. In the 1930s and early 1940s he published a monthly magazine called the Beacon. He also wrote poetry. At home we had the slenderest book of his poems: Thirty-three Poems, four or five inches square, bound in a patterned magenta cloth, dedicated to his mother, “because she does not read verse.” I have a half memory of the first poem: Weep not or wail / Pleasure and grief are vain / The wheel must turn, the river flow / And the day unveil.

Albert Gomes had a column in the Trinidad Sunday Guardian. He signed it Ubiquitous, which not many people knew the meaning of and few knew quite how to pronounce (“you” or “oo,” “kit” or “quit”?). He was famous for his big words; it was part of his size and style. It was in a Gomes column that I first came across the word “plethora” and decided it wasn’t a word for me. When Gomes wrote about the local island culture he could make it part of his anti-Indian turn, since Indians were staying outside that culture. But there were many sides to Gomes, many strings to his lyre, and I suspect (though I am not really sure now) that it was he who wrote in his vigorous way about the young poet from St. Lucia—part of the theme of an island culture—and made us take notice.

The reader will have guessed by now that the poet was Derek Walcott. As a poet in the islands, for fifteen or sixteen or twenty years, until he made a reputation abroad, he had a hard row to hoe; for some time he even had to work for the Trinidad Sunday Guardian. Forty-three years after his first book of poems came out, self-published, he won the Nobel Prize for literature.

As for Albert Gomes, who might have been his champion in 1949, he came to no good. In 1956, six years after I had left the island, there arose a proper black leader, Williams, a small black man with dark glasses and a hearing aid, stylish (a necessary quality) with these simple props, and soon overwhelmingly popular. He talked a lot about slavery (as though people had forgotten). By that simple means he made all island politics racial; and Gomes, the Portuguese, with no true constituency now, for all his anti-Indian postures, all his talk about the island culture, the dance and the steel band, was broken and humiliated and cast aside by the same black people who just a few years before had liked to see him as a fat-man character, their protector, a local carnival Stalin with moustache and pipe.




So I knew the name Walcott. But I didn’t know the verse. Albert Gomes (and others) might have quoted some of the lines in their articles, but I didn’t remember anything.

I had no feeling for poetry. Probably language had something to do with it. Our Indian community was just fifty years away from India, or less. I had a Hindi-speaking background. I couldn’t speak that language but I understood it; when older people in our joint family spoke to me in Hindi I replied in English. English was a language we were just coming into. English prose was the object of my writing ambition, and such limited feeling as I have now for the poetry came to me later, through the practice of prose.

I didn’t do English in the sixth form; and when I saw the text books, the Lyrical Ballads and so on, I considered myself lucky. Poetry in school had stopped for me the year before, with Francis Palgrave’s Golden Treasury. I had loved the rollicking children’s verses in the junior reading books at school; more than sixty years later they still come back to me. Palgrave should have built on that pleasure, if I were ready for him; but I didn’t get on with his Victorian anthology. I hated the very sight of the red soft-covered book (the soft cover an economy of wartime book-production). The poems he had chosen made me think of poetry as something far away, an affectation, a searching for rare emotion and high language. And just as Albert Gomes had made me decide that “plethora” was never a word I would use, so Palgrave made me decide that poetry was not for me.

So I wouldn’t have known in 1949 what to make of Walcott. But we should at least have bought the little book. It wasn’t cheap (more than the price of a Penguin, and twice the price of a very good cinema seat) but it wasn’t expensive: a local dollar, four shillings and twopence, twenty-one pence in modern money. But if English was something we were just coming to, this kind of book-buying was something we were as yet very far from. We bought school books; we bought cheap editions of the classics; my father, an Indian nationalist in this small way, occasionally went to a shop in Charlotte Street in the centre of the city and bought Indian magazines (the Indian Review and the Modern Review) and books about India from Balbhadra Rampersad (with his big purple stamp on the fly leaf of the books he sold: I never got closer to him than that stamp: I never got to know the man or his shop). But to go out and buy a new book like the Walcott because people were talking about it would have seemed an extravagance; and that was where we were in the end ruled by the idea of our poverty. And though as a writer I was to depend on people buying my new book, that idea of book-buying as an extravagance stayed with me for many years.

It wasn’t until 1955 that I came across the Walcott book. I had been in England for more than four years. They were bleak years. I had done the universi...

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Naipaul, V.S. Author
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