In almost everything he writes, VS Naipaul hangs his arguments and prejudices from a seductive personal narrative that is jewelled with detail. His latest essay collection, about his early development as a writer, includes a beautiful account of his friendship with Anthony Powellby Ian Jack / October 27, 2007 / Leave a comment
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A Writer’s People: Ways of Looking and Feeling, by VS Naipaul Picador, £16.99
Being too young when I tried to read them, or perhaps too provincial or of the wrong class, I never got much joy from A Dance to the Music of Time, Anthony Powell’s 12-novel sequence depicting a certain type of English life—the type Powell knew best—in the middle years of the last century. I enjoyed other novels by Powell—his first, Afternoon Men, and his last, The Fisher King—but the series that was said to be his masterpiece seemed to depend for its effect on the reader already knowing the kind of people the author was writing about. Today Powell and his characters would be called “toffs,” but I don’t think it was the social difference between the reader and the read-about that stood as a barrier to the books’ pleasure; Evelyn Waugh wrote from and about the same territory and made it sharp, funny and sad to people who had never heard of Jermyn Street or White’s. Powell, by contrast, looked to be engaged in a long-winded private satire, with footmen posted at the door to keep the wrong sort of reader out.
Anthony Powell befriended VS Naipaul in 1957. It was a generous act. Powell was 52 and approaching his great years as a country gentleman and distinguished litterateur. Naipaul was 25, had just published his first novel, and was scraping a living from book reviews. We don’t know quite what attracted Powell to the young Trinidadian; Powell, according to Naipaul, was a generous “collector of people.” But his kindness was seized by Naipaul and returned with affection and admiration. Powell represented a way of living and talking that Naipaul had been seeking ever since he came to Oxford from his small colony. Naipaul writes that Oxford, and later the BBC, provided fellow students and colleagues who were “for the most part provincial and mean and common.” Powell was none of those things. To quote Naipaul: “He was proud of being an English writer; he thought it something delicate and special.” He represented the worth of the journey. As Diana Athill, Naipaul’s first editor, has written elsewhere, Naipaul was “a man raised in, and frightened by, a somewhat disorderly, inefficient and self-deceiving society, who therefore longed for order, clarity and competence.” And so, according to Athill,…