Notes from a small island
A weblog by Jonathan Ali

Wednesday, September 22, 2004  

Reviews of VS Naipaul's new novel, Magic Seeds have begun to appear; Nicholas links to Anita Sethi's in Glasgow's Sunday Herald.

Siddhartha Deb in the New Statesman says:

"Naipaul's gift for social observation has always had to struggle against the current of his political sensibility, his unwillingness to register the full implications of what his novelist's eye has sought out. In this book, where the idea being confronted is the rationale behind mass political movements, his characteristic feeling for form, language and character is swamped by a tide of distaste for Maoists, Indian peasants, British workers, white liberals and women."

And he concludes, echoing Naipaul's pronouncement some years ago that the novel is dead:

"The novel as a form may not be exhausted, but Magic Seeds shows us a writer who has nothing more to tell us until he reinvents himself and his world."

Sudipta Datta in India's Sunday Express is also displeased by what she sees as Naipaul's prejudices:

"Willie lives in a vacuum, and what’s more confusing is the writer’s stranglehold over this character. Naipaul’s biases — a disgust for guerrillas, Indian farmers (cricket people/matchsticks whose minds have gone after centuries of malnourishment), English masses (dole-scroungers) — creep into the book, and into Willie’s and others’ mouths."

Other reviews aren't as damning. In fact, Philip Hensher in the London Telegraph is greatly impressed by Magic Seeds:

"Psychologically, this has all Naipaul's celebrated subtlety - he quietly notes when an Englishwoman unconsciously reveals herself by using the characteristic vocabulary of her lover. In style, it is unmistakably a 'late work'. Like his characters here, but more clear-sightedly, Naipaul has steadily renounced many of his previous luxuriances. After A House for Mr Biswas, the knockabout comedy disappears; after the magnificent A Bend in the River, the scornful and resonant irony fades away; and by now, he has started to drop the lushly physical descriptive mode which, in The Enigma of Arrival, mounts a serious challenge to Conrad. What is left is a style of narrow, exquisite refinement."

Anthony Thwaite, however, also writing in the Telegraph, is not quite sure what to make of the book:

"At the end of one passage, Willie says: 'And, as so often with her when she was soothsaying or story-telling, we couldn't tell at the end how we had got to where we had got. Everybody just had to look solemn and stay quiet for a while'. That's rather how I feel about Magic Seeds."

India's Outlook, meanwhile, dares to suggest that Naipaul may be past his prime:

"Magic Seeds, unfortunately, is no more than disparate experiences and ideas offered to the reader in the form of a novel. Is this the inevitable outcome of an author reaching a stature which makes it impossible for anyone to edit his work? The tragic loneliness of success? Or a casualness that comes from the confidence that there is an audience waiting? Whatever the reasons, the novel, sadly, conveys a sense of a writer slipping from the exacting standards he had set for himself.

"It is hard to believe that the man who wrote books like A House for Mr Biswas or The Enigma of Arrival has written this novel. Somewhere along the way, an honest, creative self-exploration turned into barren, narcissistic self-absorption.... Naipaul’s criticism of Dickens was that he died of self-parody, words that come perilously close to what Naipaul is doing to himself."

The Scotsman is more complimentary of Naipaul's literary gifts, and thinks we may end up with a trilogy:

"The ending leaves us far from certain that Willie’s story is complete. I look forward, with hesitations, to the prospect of a third volume. In spite of its austere and ungenerous vision, Magic Seeds is pleasingly well-paced and, for the most part, elegantly written. It also reminds us that the Nobel committee is willing to honour a talented maverick."

India's Business Standard is rather non-commital; this piece is more than mildly entertaining, if a little forced.

posted by Jonathan | 9:25 AM 0 comments


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