I have always moved by intuition alone. I have no system, literary or political." Many of the pieces in this collection (an anthology of essays published between 1965 and 2001) find VS Naipaul arguing that his fiction is shorn of bias and dogma. Accident, luck, a great deal of labour and imaginative power have taken him from one book to the next, each publication being a fresh discovery of the self and the world.
Naipaul is critical of writers who work within predetermined frames. There is something flawed and unexercised about Conrad's creative imagination, he argues: "Conrad's subjects and all his conclusions, seemed to have existed in his head when he settled down to write... We almost begin with the truth - portable truths, as it were, that can sometimes be rendered as aphorisms - and work through to their demonstration." As to many contemporary writers, Naipaul denounces experimentation and linguistic play as existing for their own sake, or for private glamour, the writer no longer awakening the reader to "the sense of true wonder".
Writers are often untrustworthy when it comes to explaining the nature of their craft and calling, and Naipaul is no exception. He presents himself as an innocent explorer, each of his novels being heuristic voyages. The truth is that you can identify a Naipaul novel from its opening sentences. He is one of the most recognisable voices in modern fiction. His themes are consistent and obsessive: in his essay on Conrad he confesses them as "the new politics, the curious reliance of men on institutions they were yet working to undermine, the simplicity of beliefs and the hideous simplicity of actions, the corruption of causes, half-made societies that seemed doomed to remain half-made".
Wearing the mantle of Victorian high seriousness, in the latter part of his career he has travelled the continents identifying human failure. It is, of course, his great achievement, this ceaseless exposure of decline and decay. Such a monumental effort took its toll in terms of sickness of heart and mind, charted with astonishing honesty in his Enigma of Arrival. …