"Murray is the best kind of literary biographer" – The Financial Times.
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Winner of the 2015 Basil Bunting Award for poetry

Tuesday, 29 July 2008

V.S.Naipaul or Does Genre Matter?

The idea that literary genres have fixed rules and determined boundaries, infringing which is a kind of solecism, an offence against classical decorum, would be thought laughable in any contemporary critical forum. Aristotle is dead and a playwright is more likely to be applauded for exploding dramatic conventions than for observing the 'Unities' of the old textbooks. My own 'novel' of 2001, A Short Book About Love, in its unclassifiability - it mixed fact, fiction, humour, seriousness, autobiography, the essayistic - is a case in point. If 'postmodernism' leaves one legacy it's the idea that mixing it is OK. I largely go along with this but I know there is an argument, occasionally heard, that genre is actually a useful concept, that it works, and is something a skilful writer can exploit with great success. The sonnet, for example, in its strict Shakespearean form, still has life in it and poets can get something out of it (see my forthcoming example in the Autumn issue of Poetry Salzburg Review!).

All this is by way of saying that I have, belatedly, caught up with V.S.Naipaul's The Enigma of Arrival (1987) which is marketed as a novel but is plainly an account of his own arrival in the Wiltshire countryside in the mid 1980s to witness changes in that rural society in the shadow of a crumbling country estate on which he lives in a rented cottage. It could easily have been marketed as a straight autobiography but the publishers aren't daft and it's subtitled "A Novel in Five Sections". I doubt if a single 'fact' has been changed and - this is the crucial thing - reading it one is convinced that this is a book about Naipaul himself at every stage of the way. On the other hand, the fictional format (or willing acceptance of its ground rules one might say) works perfectly. It's an expansive novel that repeats and recapitulates and does its business at leisure. In the end it works as a reading experience so what more could one want?

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