Posts Tagged ‘V.S. Naipaul’

Books on film

November 22, 2010

I have never understood why someone would watch the film of a book and then buy the book.

Any Human Heart jumped up into Amazon’s Top 100 books today, after the first part of the TV adaptation screened last night. The Guardian’s TV reviewer was just one of many who was so impressed with the film that he instantly went online to order the book.

The book is, by all accounts, absolutely superb. It’s been on my list of things to get round to reading, ever since I started working in the bookshop and noticed that several copies were piled up on the favourites table. Whenever I talk to colleagues about their best ever books, Any Human Heart is almost always up there.

I should have just bought a copy and read it straight away, but instead I read Ordinary Thunderstorms, by the same author, which had just come out. And I found it, well, somewhat ordinary. I definitely wasn’t in the mood to read another William Boyd afterwards, even if Any Human Heart is, apparently, a different, far superior, kettle of fish.

If only I had read it back then, instead of the wretched Thunderstorms book, I wouldn’t be in the quandary that I’m in today about the TV adaptation. You see, as I mentioned, I don’t understand the whole watching the film and then buying the book phenomenon. If I were to watch the film of Any Human Heart, I don’t think I’d ever get round to reading the book.

Unlike the Guardian reviewer and the other thousands of people who leapt on to Amazon to order their copy this morning, I would be holding out, waiting for the series to finish rather than reading the book as well. If the story is being told in one particular medium (on screen), then why look for the same story in another medium (on the page) too? It’s the same story, more-or-less, and it’s not especially fun playing spot the difference between the two different versions.

I don’t mind doing it the other way round. If I’ve read the book, then I’m perfectly happy to watch the film. Indeed, I  tend to try and hunt down the film, once I’ve read a particularly good book, keen to see how a director, screenwriter, or actor has interpreted it, how their ideas might differ from mine. I was positively peeved on discovering that the film of The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, which is apparently every bit as good as the absolutely marvellous book, is almost impossible to get hold of on DVD. (See this post for more on the book.)

The thing is, when reading a book, although the words enter one’s head through one’s eyes, it is the mind’s eye which is really active, imagining the described events, characters, situations. In my head, they may not have the sharp, high-definition outlines that they would be given on screen, but they’re still there.

Right now, I’m reading Naipaul’s A House for Mr Biswas, and while I’m not precisely certain of exactly what Mr Biswas looks like, I can definitely picture the Tulsi store, with its flaking, faded signs on the walls, and his little shop in the Chase, with its mud walls, its counter, the old tins up on the top shelf. I can imagine him on his bicycle with his daughter, precariously peddling along the track in the dark, when he is stopped by a policeman. If a novel is good, if it is well-told, then I can picture it.

Of course, films work differently. The film pictures everything for you. And so your interpretation of the story is coloured not just by the author, but by the director and the actors too. It is no longer your own imagination that has free reign with what is written, but all these other people are busy telling you exactly how to see everything.

How tragic, for instance, to equate Harry Potter with drippy Daniel Radcliffe! How sad to think of the brilliantly geeky Hermione as home counties posh kid Emma Watson! Acting skills aside, they spend the latest film looking like they’re modelling Gap’s 1996 collection. J.K.’s original creations were so much cooler, so much more interesting, so much more different, so much more real than the film’s insipid characters.

Having said that, I loved the latest Harry Potter film. I don’t really mind about Daniel and Emma because I read the books first, so my own versions of Harry and Hermione can stand tall alongside the film equivalents. Thank god I hadn’t seen the film first and then went through the ordeal of spending 600 pages hearing Daniel Radcliffe’s voice every time Harry Potter speaks, perpetually imagining him in Harry Potter’s wizarding shoes.

Dare I even whisper it, but, despite my reservations about the lead actors, I think the Harry Potter film is better than the book. All the endless guff about the Weasley wedding preparations is thankfully condensed into a marquee being erected by co-ordinated flicks of wands. The hundreds of dreary pages devoted to Harry, Hermione and Ron hiding out in a tent in the middle of nowhere is transformed into stunning views of British countryside, and, admittedly, a rather grim cheesy dance between the two Hs, in the style of a dodgy uncle dancing with a five-year-old at a wedding. But it is worth putting up with a few rather more flawed characters in order to whizz through the boring bits of the book in a few minutes instead of painfully protracted hours.

Perhaps it was because my imagination went into overdrive while contemplating J.K.’s wonderful wizarding world, that when I was reading the books I used to have incredible Harry Potter dreams. Rather than the usual tedious anxiety ones about being late for something, or not being able to find my clothes, or being stung by wasps, or teeth falling out, my dreamscape suddenly had epic proportions. I was saving the world from evil. And I could do really brilliant magic.

It was a relief and delight that after seeing the film the other day, I once again had some first class Harry Potter dreams. And the dreams were blissfully free of Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and the rest of the film gang. Otherwise they might have been a rather nasty surprise. Instead I went to work the following day feeling pleased, quite satisfied that I’d just saved the world.

I’m not sure what Any Human Heart dreams would be like. But I shall endeavour to resist the billboards, supplements and endless reviews of the TV series, and read the book first. Otherwise, without my own images of William Boyd’s story, I might find Jim Broadbent frowning at me in my sleep, and I’m not sure that would be entirely pleasant.


Derek Walcott’s enigmatic arrival

May 21, 2010

Something excruciatingly embarrassing happened the other day in the bookshop.

It was well into the evening and the shop was almost empty when an old man shuffled his way in, announcing his arrival by means of a loud hacking cough. The cough was so bad that I was nervous of catching TB if I got too close. I tried to appear willing to help (albeit from a distance) but the old man completely ignored me and began to paw pondersously at some books, evidently happy to be left alone to browse. And cough.

Eventually he staggered his way further into the shop and at that moment another customer appeared, asking for some help. Ten minutes or so later, I looked around and saw that the old man was sitting down on a chair, not reading, just staring into space.

Oh no, I thought, it’s half an hour before we close and a tramp has taken up residence. Now don’t get me wrong, I don’t mind tramps at all. I think the only reason we’re not really supposed to have tramps in the shop is because other customers have been known to complain. But, as I mentioned, the shop was almost empty, so he wasn’t disturbing anyone else. I was just nervous that he might refuse to leave when it was time to lock up.

I decided not to worry about it, and that I’d ask my colleague what to do when she reappeared – she’d been off helping a customer downstairs for quite some time.

At that moment, my colleague skipped up to me, out-of-breath, in a flap, rather stressed out. ‘Oh my god, Derek Walcott’s here and I can’t find any of his poetry.’

‘Derek Walcott? Wow, I love Derek Walcott. How amazing! Where is he? Have you been helping him downstairs?’

‘No, he’s just over there, sitting down. These two women who are friends of his have been asking me to find his books.’

Yes, you have deduced correctly. I thought the Nobel-Prize-winning poet Derek Walcott was a tramp.

In my defence, I’d like to point out that I never recognise anyone famous. The other day someone had to tell me I’d just been serving Orlando Bloom. (I’d assumed he was just a rather cocky, handsome chap, who had more money than sense, grabbing twenty expensive hardbacks off the shelf in about five minutes flat.) And, I suppose, writers are particularly hard to recognise because often one knows their work better than their face. Still, I remain suitably humiliated and embarrassed by the mistake.

Perhaps it was an attempt to make amends, more likely just curiosity, but I did some hunting around the internet to find out a bit more about Derek Walcott, who, other than seeming like a tuberculosised tramp, really didn’t come across as particularly charming. For instance, when I told him we’d sold so many copies of his new collection White Egrets that we’d completely run out, he just grunted at me. Yes, grunted.

I discovered there is a rather ungentlemanly snipey rivalry between Derek Walcott and V.S. Naipaul. This erupted particularly viciously when Walcott recited a poem called ‘The Mongoose’ a couple of years ago. The poem begins, ‘I have been bitten, I must avoid infection/Or else I’ll be as dead as Naipaul’s fiction’ and continues in this vein.

The poem is, journalists concluded, Walcott’s revenge for a rather backhanded article that Naipaul wrote about him in the Guardian, in which Naipaul praised his very early work, implying that his later work wasn’t really up to much.

I also read another poem from Walcott’s collection White Egrets, published on the Guardian website (so I don’t feel quite as nervous about copyright infringement by reprinting it here):


This page is a cloud between whose fraying edges

a headland with mountains appears brokenly

then is hidden again until what emerges

from the now cloudless blue is the grooved sea

and the whole self-naming island, its ochre verges,

its shadow-plunged valleys and a coiled road

threading the fishing villages, the white, silent surges

of combers along the coast, where a line of gulls has arrowed

into the widening harbour of a town with no noise,

its streets growing closer like a print you can now read,

two cruise ships, schooners, a tug, ancestral canoes,

as a cloud slowly covers the page and it goes

white again and the book comes to a close.

Perhaps it was because Naipaul was in my mind after learning about the Mongoose debacle, but the poem immediately brought to mind a moment from his book The Enigma of Arrival. I’m sure neither Walcott nor Naipaul would be thrilled about the connection.

About a third of the way through Naipaul’s book, the narrator – a writer from Trinidad, who’s moved to Wiltshire – remembers when he first left the Caribbean several years ago. He describes the view from the aeroplane window and notices the transformation from what is seen from the ground:

At ground level so poor to me, so messy, so full of huts and gutters and bare front yards and straggly hibiscus hedges and shabby back yards: views from the roadside. From the air, though, a landscape of logic and larger pattern: the straight lines and regularity and woven, carpet-like texture of sugar-cane fields, so extensive from up there, leaving so little room for people, except at the very edges; the large unknown area of swampland, curiously still, the clumps of mangrove and brilliant-green swamp trees casting black shadows on the milky-green water; the forested peaks and dips and valleys of the mountain range; a landscape of clear pattern and contours, absorbing all the roadside messiness …

Surely the effect is similar to Walcott’s ‘headland with mountains … ochre verges … shadow-plunged valleys and a coiled road’?

Of course a vital difference is that Naipaul’s narrator sees the island at his moment of departure, of taking off, of leaving a landscape of childhood behind. Walcott’s is an image of arrival, of landing, of the ‘streets growing closer’ rather than further away.

But Naipaul also describes an arrival in the Caribbean. This is right at the end of the book, when the narrator returns to Trinidad and describes the changes wrought on the landscape:

Where there had been swamp at the foot of the Northern Range, with mud huts with earthen walls that showed the damp half-way up, there was now a landscape of Holland: acres upon acres of vegetable plots, the ridges and furrows and irrigation canals straight … No narrow roads; no dark, overhanging trees; no huts; no earth yards with hibiscus hedges … But highways and clover-shaped exits and direction boards: a wooded land laid bare, its secrets opened up.

The romantic, nostalgic ‘roadside messiness’ of his childhood Trinidad has been erased; ‘hibiscus hedges’ and ‘shabby back yards’ have been replaced with clean ‘straight’ irrigation canals and highways. The narrator has seen Trinidad as ‘a landscape of clear patterns and contours’ before, when he first left the island, when looking down from the aeroplane. But when he arrives, the change in perspective is brought about by time rather than point of view. And what makes the arrival so tragic, so hopelessly nostalgic, is that it should be a return, a going back to the initial point of view of roadside shabbiness. The narrator has landed in Trinidad, but he can’t regain that initial perspective of his childhood. As he says: ‘we couldn’t go back. There was no ship of antique shape now to take us back.’

So there is nothing really particularly enigmatic about the arrival back in the Caribbean in Naipaul’s The Enigma of Arrival. The Caribbean landscape has been transformed irrevocably into something new – into ‘a landscape of Holland’ – and all that is left of the messy romance of the old is nostalgia.

Ironically, it is Walcott’s image of arrival that is more mysterious. He links old and new together. The road in his poem isn’t a brutal ‘highway’ with ‘clover-shaped exits and direction boards’, it is ‘a coiled road/threading the fishing villages’, seemingly organic, vital, part of the island’s indigenous way of life. The island is ‘self-naming’, retaining its own identity and its ‘shadow-plunged valleys’, rather than being like ‘Holland’ and ‘laid bare’, like Naipaul’s island.

And whereas Naipaul states, ‘There was no ship of antique shape now to take us back’, Walcott describes boats from all eras: there are ‘ancestral canoes’ sitting alongside modern ‘cruise ships’, seventeenth-century ‘schooners’ and ‘a tug’.

Walcott’s poem transcends time, binding old and new together in a beautiful image of hopeful synthesis – even if it’s only a momentary glimpse, in between the clouds. But for Naipaul, the present has erased the past, and, sadly, I can’t see Walcott lending him one of his ‘ancestral canoes’.