John Bayley

Is this Review to be the End of Foster Bayley?

A Way in the World

By V S Naipaul

Heinemann 256pp £14.99 order from our bookshop

What has made Naipaul so wholly original a writer and stylist is hard to define, because whatever it is it seems to lack positive substance, to be an omnipresent but wholly negative power. He is the master of the undefined, the uncertain and the contingent. Strong feelings, like disgust or envy, become colourless and subdued; powerful longings, like nostalgia and the search for identity, bleach into a kind of ghostliness. By replacing sensation and response the act of writing shows them to be inadequate. Adequacy is solely in the pen.

As Falstaff made other men witty, so the effect of Naipaul is (as the above paragraph reveals) to make the critic pretentious; but he could not be less pretentious himself. He sets up pretension, as he sets up meaningfulness and pseudo-greatness (‘one of the greatest living novelists’ say the blurbs) and then walks quietly away from them. With each book he writes he evades more completely having to say what sort of book it is, and to what genre it belongs – novel, travelogue, autobiography, memoir. He doesn’t arrive anywhere, because he doesn’t set out. His most haunting book, and most typical title, is The Enigma of Arrival, which was nothing more or less than the description of few months spent writing in someone else’s house in Wiltshire, but which contrives in retrospect entirely to captivate the reader’s memory.

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