Saturday, February 26, 2011

A Writer's People by V S Naipaul

"All my life I have had to think about ways of looking and how they alter the configuration of the world." With this prologue, Naipaul starts his book, A Writer's People: Ways of Looking and Feeling (Picador, 2007).

The book contains five essays that deal with many figures, mostly literary ones. There is an essay on Mahatma Gandhi, the only non-literary figure in this collection, which is the most fascinating chapter of the book. But Gandhi too was a writer. His autobiography, with its simplicity, directness and naked honesty, has greatly impressed Naipaul.

In the book's first chapter, The worm in the bud, Naipaul discusses his early days in Trinidad and how he became aware of Trinidadian writing and writers: Derek Walcott, Edgar Mittelholzer, Samuel Selvon, and his own father, Sreepersad.

Early on, Naipaul had realised the literary barrenness and lack of culture in Trinidad; he was in sixth standard when this precocious student understood the futility of a career in writing in the small place: "As always in these in 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." Naturally, he needed to get away from the smallness of a place like Trinidad.

To have come from a small island like Trinidad, without the human wealth of Ibsen's Norway, there seemed to be nothing but a literary cul-se-sac for writers from Naipaul's Trinidad. "Small places with simple economies bred small people with simple destinies," he writes.

Spiritual emptiness

Walcott had become a local figure--his poetry was appreciated in his home island. But the local figure had to endure a kind of humiliation. He was tormented by his job on the local Sunday paper: "It would have been humiliating for him to be bossed around by people he saw as his inferiors."

Naipaul talks of a spiritual emptiness that poets such as Walcott had to face in the island. "The spiritual emptiness was a problem for everyone from the plantation territories who wanted to write," he says. "Many were destroyed or silenced by it."

Walcott found his own way around that emptiness. How? "He began to fit his island material to older, foreign work. He might take an old Spanish play, say, and re-work it as a local play: Shakespeare's method."

Naipaul does not approve of this borrowing. "It is the better and truer part of the labour of a writer from a new place to work out what his material is, to wring substance from the unwritten-about and unregarded local scene," he says.

International success was not coming soon to Walcott. He had exhausted the first flush of his talent by singing praises of the spiritual emptiness of the place. He had been promising for too damn long. He needed a job; he had become ordinary. To Naipaul, if you are a writer or a poet and you are in need of a job, you are ordinary.

A writer lives principally for his writing

In the same essay, Naipaul writes about other Trinidadian writers. Edgar Mittelholzer was a mulatto, and wrote a well-regarded novel, A Morning at the Office. Later in life, he set himself on fire in London, like a Buddhist monk in Vietnam. Naipaul thought he was a dedicated writer and his self-immolation was shocking for him.

Samuel Selvon was a Trinidadian writer. In 1951, he published his first novel, A Brighter Sun. "It is hard to be the first with any kind of writing, and Selvon in this book burnt up his simple material," Naipaul comments. In far-off London, Selvon lost touch with his material. He became wordy and absurd: "The prosiness, piety and self-regard were intolerable."

On Naipaul's own father, Sreepersad, he says that he damaged his material when he tried to fit it to what he thought of as a story: the trick ending, say. "In fact," he writes, "if he could have taken a step back, he would have seen that there were more things to write about...but probably that step back into the bad colonial setting would have caused him pain, and pain was something he didn't wish to face in his writing."

An English way of look

The book's second chapter is on Naipaul's friendship with novelist Anthony Powell.

He begins the chapter thus: "He was fifty-two, at the peak of his reputation, and I was twenty-five and awkward, poor in London, with one book published. For a reason I couldn't understand--there was every kind of difference between us--he offered his friendship."

Naipaul was not particularly impressed with Powell's novels. He thought they were extraordinary failures in many respects. He thought his writing didn't undermine his subjects--a hallmark of good writing.

But he cherished his friendship with Powell. Powell was the editor of Punch and he had loved Naipaul's first novel. On this Naipaul says: "It turned out that he had not only sent the book out for review; he had read it. This was more than I expected. He then said something which I thought very wise...He said that, whatever its flaws, a writer's first novel had a lyrical quality which the writer would never again recapture." In this literary judgment, Naipaul found a depth of civilization.

He appreciated Powell's (Tony) good nature, the absence of malice in him. "I had longed to get away from the easy malice of the small place I grew up in, where all judgments were moralistic and hateful and corrupting, the judgments of gossip," he writes. "But so far I hadn't been lucky in England." He had found people in the University and at BBC mean and provincial for the most part.

In his essay, Naipaul wonders why Powell wrote and why he had got started on the writing life and why he had stayed (many start, few stay), and whether there was a true need. "His writing didn't seem to come out of need," he writes. "He seemed to have risked nothing...Unlike Greene and Orwell and Waugh at no stage did he go to meet the world. His conviction was that his world was enough."

There is a lesson for the young writers here. How many of you go out to meet the world?

Overliterate societies have their own snares, Naipaul says. By 1930s, when Tony was beginning, very little about the great European societies (Dickens's England, Tolstoy's Russia and Balzac's France) had been left unsaid. "These societies," Naipaul observes, "had been diminished for various reasons -- war, revolution; and the world around these once unchallenged societies had grown steadily larger." Then Naipaul makes a very acute observation. He says: "A society's unspoken theme is always itself; it has an idea where it stands in the world. A diminished society couldn't be written about in the old way, of social comment."

Books do not live if they are not original, he says. If you do what has been done before, your book is not going to survive. It is hard to be the first (Naipaul's father's problem). It is possibly harder to come near the end. That was Tony's challenge.

In his later life, like Waugh, Tony moved to the English countryside--it was like withdrawal from life. To live in the English countryside, he says, was to be sheltered and creatively to die.

Looking and not seeing: The Indian way

The third chapter of the book is about the Indian way of looking. Mark his words: he says looking but not seeing. The chapter mainly dwells on three writers: an Indian indentured labourer, Rahman Khan's autobiography, Jeevan Prakash (The Light of Life)--Rahman was a teacher of Hindu scriptures and a labourer in Surinam; Gandhi and Nehru. He describes Gandhi through the eyes of Aldous Huxley. He talks about Gandhi's years in London and his various experiments with food and so on.

He sees Gandhi's journey (through England and South Africa) akin to that of Bhuddha's--a spiritual journey. Gandhi's rebellion was not of the European kind. "The theme of rebellion is one of the great themes of Western European literature," he writes. "The true modern novel arises when the rebel, the man apart, feels himself strong enough to take on the established order, and when that order is fluid enough to make room for him." Gandhi's rebellion starts with small, manageable political aims but as his vision widens, the nature of his rebellion grows.

Disparate ways

This chapter is on Flaubert and his novel Salammbo, a retelling of the rebellion of mercenaries in Carthage, the tale extracted from the work of the Greek historian Polybius (200-118 BC). Naipaul admires Falubert's style in Madame Bovary, but is not impressed with his accomplishment in Salammbo. In Madame Bovary, Naipaul notes, the language is plain and clean and brief. "The elegance and the drama lay in the spare, unexpected detail...this was what caught at the reader." This was prose that had to be read slowly, he says.

Bovary was grey, Salammbo purple. Naipaul thus contrasts the two novels: "It seems quite another writer--someone coarser, steeped in nineteenth-century orientalism and melodrama--who, five years later, published Salammbo."

Naipaul sees the novel's failure as an indication of Falubert's over-ambitiousness. "Ambition makes a writer reach beyond what he has achieved," he remarks.

In passing, Naipaul strikes at Flaubert's publicity-seeking nature: "He was an early self-publicist. He wished people to know that his writing didn't come easily, like Balzac's. It took time, and was original."

India again: the Mahatma and after

The last chapter has many curious characters: Gandhi, Vinobha Bhave (he calls him a foolish man), and Nirad C. Chaudhuri.

He considers the early part of Chaudhuri's Autobiography brilliant but when it comes to scholarship, he meets Naipaul's disapproval, even scorn. "He was no scholar," Naipaul says of the Bengali intellectual.

It is the last three pages of the novel that interested me in a great way. They deal with the contemporary writing scene in India. "Sixty years after independence that problem (fitting one civilization to another) is still there," he says. "India has no autonomous intellectual they look away from India for ultimate fulfilment. They look in the main to Britain and the United States...That's where the better jobs are, where Indians are well thought of, and that is where people of a certain level wish to live and marry--and make cookies and shovel snow off the pavement in winter--and educate their children."

Naipaul makes some valid criticisms of the new Indian writing that has emerged from, especially, the Indian Diaspora:

1. These novels are by and large autobiographical, family stories with daddyji and mamaji, and nanee and chacha, against a backdrop of extended Indian families. Each extended family produces a writer. "One writer, one book: it may not build a literature, but it is a system that allows new writers and new families to come up all the time."

2. Is this writing just old fashioned Indian boasting? he asks. Is it something new, a new awakening, or just a part of publishing culture in Britain and the US? "The question has to be asked," he insists, "because no national literature has ever been created like this, at such a remove, where the books are published by people outside, judged by people outside, and to a large extent read by people outside."

3. The new Indian writers, Naipaul claims, are trying to imitate other successful writers (after getting educated in the West). "They are not bursting with the wish to say anything," he writes. "They are guided in the main by imitation." Should they be Irish or German or should they indulge in wordplay (swipe at Rushdie?) or should they try magic realism? And I like this one: "Should they be like the late Raymond Carver and pretend they know nothing about anything?"

"This is where India begins to get lost. The writing school's India is like the writing school's America or Maoist China or Haiti."

Naipaul's judgment is final and it is harsh: "India has no means of judging. India is hard and materialist. What it knows best about Indian writers and books are their advances and their prizes. There is little discussion about the substance of a book or its literary quality or the point of view of the writer."

On the last point, I think Naipaul's views need not be as hidebound and pessimistic as they are. Things are changing in India. While the expat Indian writer is still accorded respect, homegrown writers of quality are emerging too. However, as in the West, there is no exclusive respect for the literary writer anymore. For if you can honour an ordinary hack just because he is on the bestseller list, what point is there in your honour for the literary type who has taken enormous risks with his life (and not just chucked his lucrative consulting or banking job). Perhaps, like your politicians and actors, you get the writers you deserve.

Friday, February 25, 2011

An angry poet

In Woody Allen's film Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008), there is a very interesting scene (funny or serious? You decide) with a Spanish poet.

Juan (Javier Bardem) takes Vicky (Rebecca Hall) to meet his old father who lives all alone in a secluded house. When Vicky gets introduced to him, Juan tells her that his old man speaks only Spanish. "He is a poet," he says, stepping inside the house. "He believes that speaking in any other language will pollute his tongue."

Vicky is impressed with the old poet's attitude to maintain the purity of his tongue. She wants to read his work. "But he does not publish," Juan says.


"I'll explain to you later."

Vicky is perplexed. She can's understand why a poet like him would write the most beautiful lines in Spanish and then deny them to the world. By the way, Flaubert once wrote how nice it would be if an author's works could be published only after he was dead (that too only in a collected edition!).

In the next scene, we see Vicky and Juan walking in the compound of the house. "So, why doesn't your father publish his work?" Vicky asks him. "Why is he angry with the world?"

Juan says, "He is angry with the world because even after thousands of years of civilization, the world has not learned to love."


I loved this conversation in the film. The world has not learned to love. How true is that! This is serious humour. Like Tolstoy, Woody Allen reminds us that love is all we have in the world and yet we choose unhappiness (caused by pursuit of vanity or material things).

Love could be transient, true. The trick, as Juan says in the film, is to enjoy life, accepting it has no meaning whatsoever.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

William Golding's initial struggles as a writer

Friday last week I was at Carrefour and in its book section there was this sale of books (I guess the same remainders that has got publishers in India worried about their future; what to do? Even Borders in the US has filed for bankruptcy!). In the sale, you could buy a book for eight dollars or buy three of them for twenty dollars. I had bought three books a day earlier (had to let go of a nice edition of a cookbook by Padmalakshmi; she had some fabulous portraits of herself in there), so I was just browsing at the stalls, hoping to find a hidden gem or maybe learn a thing or two before I went off and finally bought some bananas.

There was Jonathan Franzen's Freedom as well (yes, just for eight dollars!). I read a few passages and decided it was not a book for me (and I could borrow it from the library any way if I ever wanted to put myself through another Ulysses). I don't 'get' American novels, and thank God I'm not an American. Imagine the guilt of not being able to enjoy and be impressed with the great American novel, Freedom (as Time would have us believe). But I must clarify that just like Rushdie's, I love Franzen's non-fiction.

In the pile of books, there was a memoir by one of Norman Mailer's assistants (or was he a cook?). The book described how he was picked up by Mailer, how much he revered the man, his daily life, likes and dislikes, and so on. I realised that this book was also not for me. I have no plans to become famous or nasty or both. Flaubert had lost the desire to be famous after he had lost his sister and father. By God's grace I have a healthy clan and the desire to be famous has gone quietly, without any loss.

Allow me a little digression here. Two years ago when I shared with a fellow writer (quite senior to me) that I was suppressing my ego and letting go of my desires (including the one to be famous--it sounds so vain and foolish, doesn't it?), he looked at me aghast, as if I was denying myself some ice cream after a dinner in a desert summer. What's wrong if one wanted to be famous? he said. It demanded a long explanation and perhaps even a dive into metaphysics and religion (I wish he could understand this simple line from Pyaasa: Yeh duniya agar mil bhi jaye to kya hai!). I didn't want to explain anything to him, so I just smiled and let the matter pass.

Now, back to the book sale. Interestingly, during the search, I found this biography of William Golding--hardcover, in great condition. The moment my eyes fell on the book, I knew it would be in the library. So, there was no need for me to buy a personal copy. However, I looked at the book's contents. There was a chapter on his struggling years. I read it right there and found it very interesting. It is instructive for those who don't know the value of perseverance.

Lord of the Flies
was Golding's publishing breakthrough. Before that novel was published, school teacher Golding had written two novels. Both were rejected by London publishers. His second novel was rejected by Jonathan Cape but the rejection had come with some comments. That's why Golding sent his Lord of the Flies (it had some other title then) manuscript to Jonathan Cape hoping they would like the new one. It was also rejected. Cape suggested Golding to show the manuscript to Andre Deutsch. He did but there too he faced rejection. He sent it to some more publishers in London but the result was always the same (Zindagi, chuka jo tu, haath mein sifar).

Golding then realised that maybe he needed an agent. He wrote to Brown Curtis. They rejected him. He wrote to some more agencies, all without any success.

When he sent the novel to Faber & Faber in 1953, a reader there put an R (rejected) on the manuscript along with a nasty remark on how the book was too dark. The book would have remained in the pile of rejections and unpublished if not for an Oxford gentleman, Charles Monteith.

Charles was only three months old at Faber (he is known to have discovered many great writers in his career). Charles picked up the tattered Golding manuscript from the pile of rejects and began to read it. He found it so interesting that he took it home. In the next editorial meeting he fought for the book. He succeeded and after a time met Golding. In his original version, Golding had opened the book with descriptions of a nuclear war. Charles wanted him to change it (he suggested some other changes too). Golding totally took out the nuclear war chapter. Finally, the book was published in 1954 to great success.

In this back story, Golding shows great persistence. Isn't it encouraging? It is very important for a writer to believe in his work and do whatever possible to get it published, unless you are Javier Bardem's father in Vicky Christina Barcelona but that is another story and I will write about it the next time.

Sunday, February 06, 2011

Hollywood in the theatre of terror

In some recent Hollywood films, the good guys and the bad guys come from the same institutions, part of the US military or intelligence establishment. Is this a Freudian slip on the part of Hollywood? Is Hollywood trying to tell us something?

Look at some of the Hollywood releases in the recent past: A-Team, Losers, Salt and if you go a little back in time, Green Zone, Traitor, and Body of Lies. What do these films have in common? On the surface, they are action movies, about characters from the US military or intelligence agencies. But beneath the surface reality, there is even a deeper reality: the good guys and the bad guys in all these movies come from the same institutions, part of the US military or intelligence establishment. Is this a Freudian slip on the part of Hollywood? Or is this deliberate?

Freudian slip or not, this looks like a departure from the past. In the cold war days, there was a clear enemy—the communists. There are hundreds of films that have Russians and Vietnamese guerillas as villains. Anti-Nazi Second World War stories are a staple even today (Inglorious Basterds, Valkyrie). For a while, Japan was also cast in a villainous role because of its rise as an industrial competitor (Rising Sun, 1993).

After the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Russia, Hollywood’s villains changed. The former Russian agents would still pop up on the screen from time to Time (Golden Eye, Tomorrow Never Dies, The World Is Not Enough, Salt), but the villain increasingly came from Asia, especially the Middle East (True Lies, 1994; Executive Decision). There would also be scenes of North Korean and Chinese prisons (Spy Game).

Post 9/11, Hollywood’s focus has been on the War on terror in Iraq and Afghanistan. But increasingly, the recent trend of Hollywood actioners to have both the protagonist and the antagonist from the same establishment (related government agencies) makes one wonder. Is Hollywood trying to tell us something? Or is it a chink in the psychological armor of Hollywood, betraying the fractured moral landscape of America?

It can be argued that Hollywood is largely about make-believe and to try to understand the world or the American foreign policy through the prism of Hollywood is an erroneous exercise. But to see Hollywood and Pentagon without any umbilical cord will be naïve too. In fact, Pentagon has been known to keep close ties with Hollywood. It has helped in producing films such as Patton, The Green Berets, From Here to Eternity, Transformers, Pearl Harbor, Armageddon, Crimson Tide, Black Hawk Down, and Top Gun.

According to David Robb , former journalist for Daily Variety and The Hollywood Reporter and author of Operation Hollywood, there is often a quid-pro-quo agreement between the Pentagon and Hollywood studios. For making military-themed or war-themed movies, Hollywood needs Pentagon’s help to shoot on military locations or use military equipment—this is important as it saves cash for the producer.

This Hollywood-Pentagon relationship goes as far back as 1927 (The first Oscar-winning picture, Wings, was made with support from the US Air Force) and even today, says Robb, if a Hollywood producer has to get Pentagon’s assistance, he has to toe Pentagon’s line and show the military in a favorable light (submit five copies of the screenplay, accept their suggestions and changes, and get approval from them before release). In this sense, Hollywood is seen as an “aid in the retention and recruitment of (US military) personnel”. However, the flip side of this deal is that filmmakers have to make compromises in the storyline to suit the image of the US military establishment.

But all filmmakers are not ready to knowtow to the US military. Some of the best Hollywood war movies have been made without the forces’ help: Apocalypse Now, Platoon, MASH, Catch-22, Full Metal Jacket, Dr Strangelove, Three Kings. In recent times, anti-Iraq/Bush war movies such as Redacted, Rendition, Battle for Haditha, Stop Loss, In the Valley of Elah were also produced without the military’s help.

But of late, it looks like there is an open rebellion against the military in Hollywood. The only other plausible reason is that Hollywood is unable to find any other convincing villains but from the establishment. That’s why, even some of the not so serious movies are showing the villains from the establishment. They are depicted as rogue (such as double agent David Headley who was involved in the terror attacked on Mumbai). For example, in Joe Carnahan’s A-Team, an elite army team led by John “Hannibal” Smith (Liam Neeson) is imprisoned for a crime they did not commit in Iraq. The guy who frames them is a CIA agent (Patrick Wilson). In Sylvain White’s Losers, an elite United States Special Forces team sent into the Bolivian jungle on a search-and-destroy mission is presumably killed by their own mission commander. Phillip Noyce’s Salt fits into the cold war era spy thriller genre but it still has the enemy coming from within the CIA itself (though, for a twist, the rogue agent works for the Russians).

Similarly, in Green Zone, Traitor and Body of Lies—damage to US interest is shown to be done by an insider. In Green Zone, a movie inspired by the non-fiction 2006 book Imperial Life in the Emerald City by journalist Rajiv Chandrasekaran, director Paul Greengrass shows that the lie that was fed to the US administration, and in turn the public, for Iraq’s having weapons of mass destruction came from an insider with other interests. Likewise, both Traitor and Body of Lies—the two films that powerfully handle themes of Islamic terrorism—highlight the bad apples within the US military establishment.

The question that begs asking is this: how come Hollywood is showing the fracture in the US defense establishment? How is this schizophrenia of moral polarity being allowed so unchecked?

Has mainstream Hollywood recently discovered its tongue, and the pleasures of freedom of expression? Or is it the case that Hollywood’s new heroes must ask tough questions and fight against the rot in their own midst. Perhaps in a post 9/11 net-savvy world, Hollywood can’t blatantly show the propaganda of the US military any more. The filmgoers are aware of the bungling of the US military: lies about the WMDs in Iraq, the Abu Ghraib episode, rendition, atrocities committed by troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, loss of American soldiers in the war zone and so on.

At a psychological level, Hollywood’s new heroes are also trying to sooth the guilt of ordinary Americans in whose name more than a million of people have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. If there are bad Americans who are causing pain in the world, there are good Americans too who take care of the bad ones. That seems to be the psychology at work in Hollywood.

Meanwhile, Pentagon is focusing on sci-fi movies aimed at younger audiences for military recruitment. So you will see more of War of the Worlds, Iron Man and Transformers in coming years.

Here is an Aljazeera documentary/discussion on Hollywood and the war machine with Oliver Stone, the eight times Academy Award-winning filmmaker; Michael Moore, the Academy Award-winning filmmaker; and Christopher Hedges, an author and the former Middle East bureau chief of the New York Times.