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The Writer and the World


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To purchase The Writer and the World

Title: The Writer and the World
Author: V.S.Naipaul
Genre: Essays
Written: (2002)
Length: 524 pages
Availability: The Writer and the World - US
The Writer and the World - UK
The Writer and the World - Canada
  • Edited and with an Introduction by Pankaj Mishra
  • Most of the essays have been previously published, many in Naipaul's non-fiction books

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Our Assessment:

B : many good pieces -- but most very familiar

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The LA Times . 18/8/2002 Vivian Gornick
The NY Times . 13/8/2002 Michiko Kakutani
The NY Times Book Rev. A 1/9/2002 Daphne Merkin
The New Yorker . 3/3/2003 Hilton Als
The Observer A 22/9/2002 Jason Cowley
San Francisco Chronicle . 18/8/2002 Jason Roberts
The Spectator . 14/9/2002 Andrew Robinson
Sunday Telegraph . 8/9/2002 Anthony Daniels
Weekly Standard . 5/8/2002 Algis Valiunas

  Review Consensus:

  Some qualms, but Naipaul is always worthwhile

  From the Reviews:
  • "Yet, to read Naipaul steadily is to feel something of the dilemma of attraction without love. Five hundred pages of strong and original writing applied to a social critique that uniformly withholds sympathy leaves the reader both excited and unsatisfied. First, there is the taste of pleasure, then the taste of ashes. It's not that the experience cancels itself out (certainly not), but it is reduced, it is reduced." - Vivian Gornick, The Los Angeles Times

  • "(H)is haphazard and lumpy new collection" - Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

  • "(T)his volume is as good a place as any to discover why he is a figure of such consequence. (...) What is perhaps most striking about them as a group is their detailed immersion in the setting at hand " - Daphne Merkin, The New York Times Book Review

  • "(F)at (five hundred and twenty-four pages) with information, details, and accounts that range across three decades of Naipaul's writing life, but its intellectual curiosity remains oddly limited. Naipaul relies too much on the reporter's tools -- description, quotation, narrative -- while rarely questioning why he is where he is." - Hilton Als, The New Yorker

  • "His pessimism and scepticism may irritate many Left-liberals, with their deep suspicion of the hardwired impulses of human nature, but he is never predictable. You never know how he will respond to a particular individual in a particular society, even in an Islamic society." - Jason Cowley, The Observer

  • "The Writer and the World isn't perhaps the best introduction to Naipaul (...) This compilation is a sort of gift to Sir Vidia from his longtime publisher, timed to coincide with his 70th birthday. It's also an instance of the jumble-sale marketing that usually follows a Nobel, a somewhat tossed-together title to feed a newly broadened audience." - Jason Roberts, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "(A)ll are worth reading (and rereading), both for the contemporary and historical information and insight they artfully impart and for what they tell us about a uniquely complex writer." - Andrew Robinson, The Spectator

  • "Not all of Naipaul's judgments have proved correct (.....) But as a guide to the post-colonial world -- the world we live in -- Naipaul is unequalled in his honesty and subtlety." - Anthony Daniels, Sunday Telegraph

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Writer and the World is an impressive if odd collection of V.S.Naipaul's non-fiction. It includes essays written between 1962 and 1992. Over 500 pages worth.
       Unfortunately, this sounds like more than it actually is. Most of the essays -- and especially the longest pieces -- including Michael X, The Overcrowded Barracoon, The Crocodiles of Yamoussoukro, and most of the long piece of Eva Perón -- have not only been published previously, but have been (and continue to be) available in book form. Some has been supplemented -- the Perón piece tacks on some more recent essays on Argentina -- but large chunks of this volume will be familiar to devoted Naipaul readers.
       Perhaps the theory is that one can never get enough -- fair enough, but then what of the non-fiction work of the past decade ? Incredibly, this volume doesn't even include Naipaul's Nobel Lecture ! What was editor Pankaj Mishra thinking ? (He offers a decent introduction to the collection, but explains nothing of how he put it together (or why he put it together in this particular way).)
       (Apparently what Mishra was thinking was that he'd save the Nobel lecture for yet another volume of collected non-fiction, with a focus on Naipaul's more autobigraphical pieces, published in 2003 as Literary Occasions.)

       The book is divided into three sections. The first (and shortest -- four pieces covering just 70 pages) is on "India". Then follows "Africa and the Diaspora", much of it centered on the Caribbean region. Finally, there are "American Occasions".
       The Indian pieces are relatively early ones, the last from 1971. Here Naipaul still could diagnose a "larger crisis, which is that of a decaying civilization, where the only hope lies in further swift decay." He describes the India he visited as though it is almost certainly doomed, writing in 1967:

The gap between India and the West is not only the increasing gap in wealth, technology and knowledge. It is, more alarmingly, the increasing gap in sensibility and wisdom. The West is alert, many-featured and ever-changing; its writers and philosophers respond to complexity by continually seeking to alter and extend sensibility; no art or attitude stands still. India possesses only its unexamined past and its pathetic spirituality.
       Perhaps editor Mishra expects all readers to be aware of the transformation of India in the time since Naipaul wrote these words (he acknowledges it briefly in his introduction) -- including the triumph of the Indian writer (writing in English) in the English-speaking world. Certainly, at least Mishra should have included a more contemporary look by Naipaul -- whose India: A Million Mutinies Now, published in 1990, describes a very different country (but which Mishra chooses not to excerpt). Instead, readers are left with Naipaul's last impressions from India in 1971 -- where a political candidate argues the country is too Western-oriented because of such terrible innovations as piping water to villages:
The pipelines in the villages is going too far. It's all right in the cities. But in villages the healthy water from the well is good enough. (...) For our womenfolk this going to the well and drawing water was one of the ways in which their health was maintained. They have now got no substitute exercise for the women.
       (Showing that local voters were at least moderately sensible even in this backward area and era the candidate spouting this wisdom did not, in the end, win the election.)
       In contrast to the enormous sprawl that is India, Naipaul also looks at various specks on the world-map -- tiny Caribbean pseudo-nations like Anguilla, Trinidad, Belize, and Grenada, or the peripheral African nation, Mauritius. These often make for fascinating portraits: utterly insignificant places on the world-stage, forgotten leftovers of colonial times, their oddly mixed populations one of the few colonial legacies left them.
       Naipaul finds and tells engrossing stories everywhere. He deftly pierces Mobuto's pretensions in Zaire, or with equal ease describes the 1984 Republican convention in Dallas at the height of the Reagan-euphoria (the "Air-Conditioned Bubble" of the title having long since burst). He is a close observer -- and yet barely ever intrudes into these narratives. There is little sense of who Naipaul is here. He participates, and yet he seems to barely be a presence, just visible at the edges (even though he is so often in the very middle of things). He is both critical and yet largely neutral. It is occasionally eerie reading.
       His judgements are often direct and often harsh. Of Anguilla he writes simply: "The place was a mistake." But Naipaul is fascinated by these mistakes -- typically, like Anguilla, a problem that cannot be simply swept away, "the problem of a tiny colony set adrift, part of the jetsam of an empire, a near-primitive people suddenly returned to a free state, their renewed or continuing exploitation."
       Occasionally, he is too ruthless -- as about Mauritius:
Then the disaster occurred. In 1949 malaria was finally eradicated. The population jumped.
       (Here -- writing about "the overcrowded baracoon" (in 1972) -- he slips most often, finding, for example that the young Mauritians have benefitted from modern advances, opining even that: "An excellent television service keeps them sharp and well informed".)

       The title of the volume is: "The Writer and the World". But there is little of the conventional writer here. Naipaul is only concerned with two types of writers. One is, essentially, himself and his unusual approach to writing and the world. But there are also many other writers here: Michael X, Eldridge Cleaver (eliciting a rare exclamation point from Naipaul when the name is first seen on the Republican convention programme), the Guyanan Cheddi Jagan. Failed authors or, in the case of Cleaver, authors who have become something completely different from the writer they once were. It's an interesting, if largely incidental preoccupation on the part of Naipaul.
       The writer does peek through often. Naipaul is always aware of the use of language, for example. Of Grenada he writes: "The revolution depended on language." In Dallas he finds in speech after speech : "the same language: unallusive, cleansed, sterile; nerveless and dead".
       There's some stuff on Borges, and an odd visit to Monterey (looking at Steinbeck's legacy there). There's a piece on Norman Mailer's New York mayoral candidacy (where Naipaul seems as much at sea as in the deepest African hinterlands)
       A Postscript offers an essay on "Our Universal Civilization".

       It's a good collection, with some very strong pieces, and by and large a fascinating world-tour. But most of it is available elsewhere, and there seems no particular purpose to this collection. The pieces are presented without contemporary updates and notes (with the very rare exception), and so it is unclear what has happened in may of these places since. Especially in the case of India, to which Naipaul returned and which he wrote about extensively almost two decades after the last Indian piece reproduced here, that seems a big omission.
       Certainly worthwhile for those who have not collected Naipaul's non-fiction over the years, but otherwise hardly necessary.

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The Writer and the World: Reviews: V.S.Naipaul: Other books by V.S.Naipaul under review: Books about V.S. Naipaul under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Contemporary British fiction at the complete review

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About the Author:

       Sir Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul was born in Trinidad in 1932. He attended University College, Oxford. In 2001 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.

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© 2002-2009 the complete review

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