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Originally published Friday, May 2, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Book review

Superb prose, relentless rants in ""A Writer's People"

V. S. Naipaul calls "A Writer's People: Ways of Looking and Feeling," "an essay in five parts," as if to impose some sort of unity or occasion on what is essentially a collection of musings on random irritants.

Special to The Seattle Times

"A Writer's People: Ways of Looking and Feeling"

by V.S. Naipaul

Knopf, 189 pp., $24.95

The Trinidad-born Indian writer V.S. Naipaul has always been difficult — not in the sense of murky or impenetrable, but rather harsh, perverse, unforgiving. Reading his early novels about the frayed margins of the Third World — "A Bend in the River," "A House for Mr. Biswas," "Guerillas" — was like getting slapped in the face by someone you thought you could trust.

Winning the 2001 Nobel Prize in literature has not notably softened Naipaul. He'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.

Naipaul calls the book "an essay in five parts," as if to impose some sort of unity or occasion on what is essentially a collection of musings on random irritants. The early success of his fellow countryman Derek Walcott, Flaubert's exotic prose opera "Salammbô," Gandhi's mysterious hold over the soul of India — these are among subjects Naipaul swirls in his imagination like an after-dinner brandy. But in the end, the laureate leaves us more muddled than intoxicated.

Feinting at a friend

Anthony Powell (author of "A Dance to the Music of Time"), Naipaul tells us, was an early and generous friend and mentor, "setting me an example, preparing me for the hard road ahead." But if you think generosity and kindness would inspire a fond tribute, you don't know Naipaul. "It may be that the friendship lasted all this time because I had not examined his work," he says snidely. And when he does examine it, or as much as he can stomach, he finds it small, dull, shoddy, "over-explained," an "extraordinary" failure, "appreciated best by people who knew the ins and outs of the life." If you felt this way about a deceased friend's work, wouldn't you keep it to yourself?

Walcott comes off slightly better. Reading one of the poet's early collections in London in 1955, Naipaul thought of "how important Pushkin was to the Russians, doing for them what hadn't been done before. I put the Walcott as high as that." But then he spoils the praise by adding that after his brilliant debut, Walcott was "all but strangled by his colonial setting," and he had to be "rescued by the American universities."

Philip Larkin was a "minor poet" and "physically a gross man." E.M. Forster's "A Passage to India" has no meaning. Waugh, Maugham, Graham Greene, Henry James — Naipaul takes each one up in a paragraph or sentence and sets them all aside with a sneer.

Even Flaubert, whom you'd think Naipaul would embrace as a kindred spirit, comes in for some hard knocks. He concedes that the second chapter of Madame Bovary is "carefully made and rich" — but why dwell on the masterpiece when it's so much more pleasurable to eviscerate the "dreadful misjudgment" of the largely forgotten "Salammbô"? There may be some point lurking here about the ambition that pushes great writers to experiment beyond their ken, but Naipaul doesn't bother to nail it down. He'd rather rub a master's nose in his failure.

A flicker of awe

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Far more interesting, to my mind, is the fresh look he takes at the casual violence of classical antiquity. Every student of Latin struggles through Caesar's "Gallic War," but how many notice a sentence such as, "They killed until their right arms were tired" or a detail such as the slaying of 6,000 men of the Verbigeni clan?

Caesar's omission of any mention of blood or suffering is, to Naipaul, an example of "the classical half view" — "the ability to see and not see." But while we're still pondering that insight and wondering about the logic of lumping Caesar and Virgil together in the same chapter with Flaubert, Naipaul whisks us back to India, to pick up Part 2 of his mini-saga of the rise of Gandhi.

Gandhi, alone, kindles a flicker of warmth, even awe, in Naipaul's heart: "as Gandhi's vision widens, the nature of his rebellion grows. His politics become indistinguishable from his spirituality." It's worth reading this reverent account for the light it sheds on Naipaul himself. "[Gandhi] looked hard at broken-down, static, cruel India," Naipaul concludes; "he took nothing for granted."

Looking hard at cruelty, taking nothing for granted, are the hallmarks of Naipaul's stance. His writing, even these tossed-off ruminations, gleams with brilliance. Even as you recoil from his judgments, it's impossible not to admire the prose. If only Naipaul had a touch of magnanimity, it might be possible to admire the man as well.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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