Nobel Laureate Naipaul (Magic Seeds, 2004, etc.) looks back at the education, writers, books, countries, people and circumstances that have influenced him and his work.
“All my life I have had to think about ways of looking and how they alter the configuration of the world,” the author declares in an opening passage about his boyhood in Trinidad. He then offers five interconnected essays that explore various aspects of this thesis, sometimes through the experiences of the notable (Gandhi), sometimes through the eyes of the nearly anonymous (an upholsterer), sometimes through those tiny moments of immense significance that have long been a feature of Naipaul’s work. At various points he lengthily—and not always flatteringly—examines the careers of other literary figures. When he finally gets around to reading A Dance to the Music of Time after his friend Anthony Powell’s death, for example, Naipaul is “appalled” by the carelessness and superficiality of much of its prose. Likewise, he confesses an inability to appreciate Graham Greene and assails Salammbô, the long historical novel Flaubert wrote after Madame Bovary (which Naipaul loves). Earning gentler treatment are Derek Walcott’s poems and Gandhi’s autobiography, the latter deemed “a masterpiece.” Unobtrusively, Naipaul offers slender slices of his own life: his experiences writing book reviews (he no longer likes to do them), as a struggling novelist trying to find his voice and as a lifelong voracious reader. Some gripping paragraphs anatomize the art of writing; academic work, he believes, retards a “real” writer’s development. Here and there, small surprises leap out, such as the seven-word revelation that his mother never read a word of his work. But Naipaul is most interested throughout in how Trinidad, India, England and other places affect the writer’s vision and the artist’s craft.
Rich with surprises and erudition, informed by an alchemist’s imagination.