A Writer's People

Time Out Ratings :

<strong>Rating: </strong>2/5

In his totally uncalled-for memoir A Writer’s People, V.S. Naipaul claims to “set out the writing to which I was exposed during my career.” But anyone who reads it will wonder why he would bother, since he insists, improbably, that “as a writer I was on my own,” owing nothing to any mentor. So, even as he presents stories about his youthful encounters with authors such as Derek Walcott and Anthony Powell, he simultaneously deflates their importance, chalking up his admiration to past naïveté. Intermittently, the author sends up a smoke screen of false humility, which quickly dissipates to reveal sterile self-regard.

For example, Naipaul acknowledges that as a young writer he was startlingly ignorant of politics, and blames this for his inability to appreciate Graham Greene’s The Quiet American. But he instantly turns and leaves the reader with the specious opinion that Greene never “made his subject clear.” Even Flaubert, in order to be praised for his selection of detail in Madame Bovary, must be punished for the overbaked confection of Salammbo.

That judgment is correct, but it sheds only the most obvious light on Naipaul’s own “way of seeing and feeling.” His sly talent for picking out the small but telling detail is, ironically, often made possible by severely restricting his view. In fiction, this works as a way to tell a tightly focused story; and in his travel writing, it makes for a troubling virtue, revealing the inherent limits of what a stranger can know about a place. But in writing about writers, the Naipaul method is nothing but a deceitful tool of vanity.

By V.S. Naipaul. Knopf, $24.95.