Man of the World

Having won the Nobel Prize, V.S. Naipaul has long ago reached that stage in a writer’s career when anything he writes will be published. Sometimes, this is a good thing; freed from having to work for a “market”, the writer can stop writing for publishers and reviewers, that is, actual readers, and begin writing for the one person who counts: the imaginary, the ideal reader. More often, however, guaranteed publication is bad for a writer; it means he no longer feels the fruitful burden of having to perfect his thoughts for others, and becomes slack. And so the arrival of that much wished-for thing—artistic freedom—often coincides with decline, as the constraints which aided creation disappear, and as the writer’s early material, which can never really be replaced, is exhausted.

Though the age of the writer and the age of the man are not the same—it is possible for the one to be young and the other old, and vice-versa—it seems from his latest collection of essays that V.S. Naipaul’s talent might, at seventy-six, be winding down. He still has his gift for music: there are paragraphs in this book which, if a single syllable were taken out of them, would not be the perfect constructions of balance and rhythm that they are. But the essays themselves, which range in theme from the poverty of mental life in colonial Trinidad, to the failings as an artist of Naipaul’s friend Anthony Powell, to the ancestral blindness to truth of Naipaul’s ancestral home, India, are not very good. Badly organised, repetitive, dull—these are poor offerings from a man who, in The Return of Eva Perón, The Killings in Trinidad, A New King for the Congo and Conrad’s Darkness (all written over a quarter of a century ago now) revealed himself as a master of the short form of writing.

Still, what is perhaps worst about these essays of Naipaul’s is not that they are no good, but that, to paraphrase Samuel Johnson, what is good in them is not new. Throughout his career Naipaul’s great gift, actually quite rare among artists, was that he had the knack for finding new material. After exhausting the world of Trinidad and his childhood in his first few books—the short stories of Miguel Street, the miniature comic-epic The Mystic Masseur,and A House for Mr Biswas, Naipaul’s attempt (successful) at the grand, European-style novel—he began to travel. Having used up the theme of India and his ancestors in the wonderful Indian Trilogy,Naipaul brought his singular eye to Africa, to South America, to Iran and Central Asia, to South-East Asia, and to the American South; a journey which was not just geographical, or even through subject-matters, but from one form of writing to another. Oscillating between writing fiction and non-fiction, Naipaul would, as he exhausted the possibilities of what he could say in one, move to the other, with its different set of freedoms and limitations.

For the reader who knows this earlier work and its triumphs, reading Naipaul’s latest book is a disappointing experience. All the best material—on the colonial mind, on “the Indian way of seeing”, on Gandhi—is to be found almost word for word in previously published volumes. And so future readers, looking, as I think they will, to get the gist of a twentieth-century classic, will not have to read this book. Which is a pity. For a writer’s later work, like the first experiments of his youth, should offer something that the products of his mature richness do not, or should at least illuminate them in some way. Even so, as one of those writers “whose history is the history of their own time, [and] who are a part of the consciousness of the age which cannot be understood without them” (Eliot’s comment on Yeats) V.S. Naipaul’s reputation will not suffer too greatly from this latest effort; it is just unfortunate that, probably at a publisher’s request, he allowed something to be published on the strength of that reputation alone.

Like many great writers, Naipaul is not always a good reader of others; the intensity of his own vision means that he only really approves of other writers when they write like him (this is why, in truth, first-rate artists often make second-rate critics). Since each of the five essays in A Writer’s People ends, if it does not begin, in literary criticism—even the piece on Gandhi is built around an analysis of the Mahatma’s autobiography—this raises a key question: is Naipaul, as well as being a great writer, any good as a critic? That is, can he be put into that small circle, which includes Coleridge, Matthew Arnold, Eliot, and, in our own day, Ted Hughes, of writers in English who are both original creative artists and penetrating critics of the works of others?

The answer to this question depends, in the end, on whether one approves of what is best described as the “Naipaul method” of reading a text. This essentially consists of taking a work, be it a novel by Anthony Powell, a poem by Virgil, or the autobiography of Gandhi, and asking the question: “What is missing?” In other words, what, given our knowledge of the background of the author’s life, of the historical circumstances in which the work was produced, would we expect to find but do not? In the case of Gandhi, for instance, this means Naipaul takes the Mahatma to task for not including any descriptions of the landscape and cities of England as they appeared to him on his first visit; a strange omission, as Naipaul points out, considering Gandhi was nineteen at the time and had never been outside his own country. Invariably, once Naipaul has discovered this kind of failure of vision in an author—in his words, a case of “not seeing”—he reads back from the individual to the society which produced him. Thus colonial India is condemned as insular and, at the same time, incapable of self-criticism, on the basis of Gandhi’s book (the eye for social injustice and the failings of tradition which Gandhi later showed were developed, Naipaul argues, during his time in South Africa).

Now, while this “historical” approach of Naipaul’s certainly produces some insights—not least, the recognition that a writer does not work in a vacuum, and is dependent on the forms of thought and expression which his age and society make available to him—it is open to the attack that it is not really, as all literary criticism should be, focused on the work itself. The error censured by Proust in Contre Sainte-Beuve, that of treating an author’s life as if it were the key to his work, is the same error made by Naipaul, except that, for the life, he substitutes the historical context. Also, though Naipaul can, as the author of The Loss of El Dorado, claim to have written a great work of history based on primary sources, he is not really an historian. The insights scattered throughout his work, particularly the travel writing, are based on intuition and a profound sense of the presence of the past in daily life, but not on thorough research (in this, Naipaul is much like his exact contemporary, Ryszard Kapuscinski; a writer who also wrote about faraway places with a keen eye, and with a weakness for generalisation).

Because Naipaul does not have a thorough knowledge of original texts in their original language, his meditations on the whole problem of “modernity” in art, while interesting, and occasionally brilliant, cannot be compared to the work of, say, an Auerbach. When Naipaul defines the modern sensibility in literature, for instance, as writing which “in its assessment of the world brings all the senses into play and does so within a frame of reason”, it is not really clear what this means. The examples of “modern” and “pre-modern” literature which Naipaul provides—the pastoral poems attributed to Virgil (modern), the novels of Tolstoy (modern), a memoir by an Indian called Rahman Khan who migrated to Venezuela in the nineteenth century (pre-modern)—suggest that physical description is for him the key to distinguishing between the realistic and the naive. But then, does this mean that a Homer, in whose work detailed physical description abounds, is more modern than a Shakespeare, in which there is little? One could say, as Naipaul does, that Homer is denied entry into the modern circle because of the “supernatural machinery” of his narrative; but then, what about Shakespeare’s ghosts? (It would be a brave critic who argued Shakespeare’s ghosts were only “metaphors” and artistic devices in the minds of his audience, while Homer’s gods were still “literal” in his.)

It may be that modern is not the best word to describe what Naipaul is trying to talk about. Realistic may be better. Not only does it carry fewer associations, but it also avoids the problem of the use of once historical terms unhistorically (the fate of not only modern, but of once meaningful words like primitive and bourgeois). Also, instead of physical description, it may be that characterisation is a better yardstick, if not an always reliable one, to the realism of a work of art. On this measure, Shakespeare is a more realistic writer than Homer, not because of his plots—which are, indeed, as spare and as absurd as any Greek tragedy—but because of his characters, which are recognisable as real people in a way Homer’s archetypal heroes are not.

Lastly, there is Naipaul’s implied conflation of “Western” with “modern”, which many critics, keen in the defence of non-Western honour, have jumped on. Certainly, the West has no monopoly on realistic literature: one need only look at The Tale of Genji, written in eleventh-century Japan, with its finely drawn characters and social comment, or to the many centuries of Chinese poetry, with its very personal lyricism, to discover that one did not need to be born in Europe or America to have eyes.

Nevertheless, though it is unfashionable to say so, there is a difference between realistic and unrealistic art, and this difference often, though not always, follows the “West and the rest” divide. There is, for instance, a difference between a Homer, the founding author of the Western tradition, and a Firdowsi, the author of the Persian late tenth and early eleventh-century epic Shahnemah (The Book of Kings). This difference is not that between a greater artist and a poorer one—at this level, these distinctions are meaningless—but between an artist who is, in the end, concerned with the world as it is, and one who is, in the end, concerned with the world of his art. If this distinction seems vague, and more than a little unsatisfactory, it is because it is; but, as is the case in most deep matters, it will have to do.

“The world is what it is.” By taking the opening line of A Bend in the River, one of Naipaul’s four great novels, for the title of his biography, Patrick French shows he is aware of that particular kind of realism which has governed both the writer’s work and his life. But then, realism, and being realistic, are not always the same thing; and it is one of the themes of French’s book that the attitude to the world which Naipaul developed as a writer eventually, to his detriment, became his attitude as a man. Outside the context of art, the writer’s necessary detachment from the world and the people in it became an excuse for harshness, and the habit of judgment he had assumed a disguise for the failure of feeling. Since the failure of feeling is, after all, nothing but the failure of the imagination, the question which French leaves open—and never ruins by asking explicitly—is whether Naipaul’s sacrifice of an ordinary emotional life, with its ordinary kinds of love and friendship, was ultimately to the cost of his art as well as his character.

As with the genre of biography in general, there is always some question hanging over literary biography as a form. Are the details of a writer’s life really necessary to an understanding of his work? And if not, does this mean that only writers whose lives were interesting in themselves should be the subject of biographies? To these usual queries French provides the best possible answer: he makes them moot. For French’s book is not only, as an evocation of the world of literary England after the Second World War, of its closeness and stuffiness, of historical value in itself, but it is also well-written. And a well-written book, like any well-executed work of art, is its own justification.

French never makes the typical literary biographer’s mistake of trying to explain the books by the life. Instead, he is content to show the context for Naipaul’s writing in both his life and times, and to point out the various accidents and circumstances which made the exercise of genius possible. On the books themselves, French’s judgment is always sure, if conventional, though an original observation is the one that Naipaul’s prose style or “voice”, which has remained remarkably constant through half a century of writing, was modelled very closely on that arrived at by his father, Seepersad Naipaul. What French does not do—and for this he cannot, as a biographer, be blamed—is then take this insight and use it to reflect on the larger place of Naipaul’s prose style in English letters. If he had, however, French might have noted that the Naipaul voice, while close to that of his father, is also like that of the Kipling of the short stories (this influence likely followed at least two channels: both directly from Kipling to Naipaul through the latter’s reading, and indirectly from Naipaul’s father to him).

Perhaps because he was born in Trinidad, and therefore isolated, and protected, from the literary fashions of Europe and America, Naipaul’s writing bears no sign of modernist influence. His plain style—really just the common speech of his era heightened—owes much to Kipling, something to Evelyn Waugh, and a little to writers like Gogol and Maupassant in translation, but nothing to Joyce and Eliot (in this, Naipaul is most unlike that other great writer of English prose in the second half of the twentieth century, Saul Bellow: a writer who, coming from the American school of Melville and Faulkner rather than the English school of Kipling and Waugh, relies for his effects on the use of a rich, slightly awkward vocabulary, and the deployment of piles of words).

Since this biography is both authorised and of a living subject, some reviewers have expressed their surprise at its frankness on the topic of Naipaul’s personal life. But as French notes, Naipaul’s vanity, great though it is, is not invested in being thought a nice person by others; and the portrait of an aloof, selfish man which emerges from this study will not come as a surprise to his readers. A user of people, Naipaul’s life offers a familiar story: the artist as parasite. Not a greedy man—though not above asking for money when in need—what Naipaul wanted and needed from others, in particular women, was flattery: the kind of moral support that can only be provided by the vision of other people sacrificing their interests, or even their lives, in the service of your ambition (well could Naipaul sing Yeats’s hymn which begins with the lines “May God be praised for woman, / Who gives up all her mind”). Certainly, a man as intelligent as V.S. Naipaul, with his sharp eye for the often mutual exploitation of human relationships, was well aware of all this; but his behaviour was justified, by both himself and others, as part of the artist’s prerogative.

Though a man’s true attitude to women is one of his inmost secrets, one suspects, from the details French supplies about Naipaul’s occasionally sordid sex life, that he is one of those men for whom sex and romance become separated early on in their experience, and are never really joined; in fact, they become an obstacle to each other. It would be breaking the rules of criticism outlined above to argue it, but it may be that this failure as a man accounts, at least in part, for Naipaul’s failure as an artist to represent romantic love (this does not mean, however, that Naipaul is not a sensitive writer about sex: he is very attuned to the elements of social aspiration, cultural preference, and race in sexual attraction; things which, while they should be obvious, are neglected in our age, convinced as it is that sex is the least, rather than the most, cultured of all human activities).

The one great love of Naipaul’s life, though not uncomplicated for that, was his father, the doomed Seepersad. Immortalised not only as Mr Biswas, but also in his son’s essays and their published correspondence, the elder Naipaul is a distant, sad presence in all the writings of the younger. Not only did the father bequeath a prose style and what Naipaul would later call “a way of seeing” to his son, but the example of his ambition, and his humiliation in the small world of colonial Trinidad, spurred his son’s anger at the world and drive to master it through words. In more than one sense then, the voice of V.S. Naipaul is the voice of the father.

As a Nobel Prize winner, V.S. Naipaul’s talent is bound to be respected in literary circles; almost no one denies he can write. Nevertheless, Naipaul is one of those writers, acknowledged great in their lifetime, over whom some question still hangs. Express admiration for him in public, and there is likely to follow an uncomfortable silence lasting at least several seconds, after which people say something like “Yes, he is certainly a good writer”, before uttering the inevitable “but …” In reviews and essays, this aura of the disreputable takes the form of a praise that is never quite unstinting; a reluctance, a hesitation to grant Naipaul a place on the pedestal alongside other living masters like Orhan Pamuk, Philip Roth or Gabriel García Márquez.

The odd thing about this is that V.S. Naipaul is, at first glance, the perfect poster-child for what people like to call “the emerging world literature”. An immigrant from a non-Western background, Naipaul has risen to become one of the great writers in the ancient language of English; it is a story which makes Horatio Alger look weak. Why, then, this lingering doubt?

The answer to this question is, as French points out in the introduction to his biography, rather simple: politics. V.S. Naipaul is politically suspect; his comments about the Third World, about Muslims, about black people, about fat women—in short, about almost every topic which in today’s world is likely to cause offence—would make him an unacceptable guest at a dinner party. What is worse, Naipaul is not easy to dismiss because he does not fit the image of a Colonel Blimp or his successor as the symbol of “reaction”, the Redneck.

Put aside the question of whether Naipaul is right or wrong in any or all of his views (and, indeed, the doubt about whether he means what he says) and all this still raises an interesting problem for criticism. Can a writer’s view of the world be separated from his work? And, if it cannot, is there still a difference between just disagreeing with a writer’s views and making a proper critical judgment? A glance at most book reviews published in Australia would suggest the answers “no” and “no”: their arguments can generally be reduced to “I like/don’t like the author’s views” or even “I like/don’t like the author”. The answers which a good critic should give are, however, “no” and “yes”: yes, it is impossible to separate a writer’s views from his work, but no, this does not mean that the critic has to agree with them to judge the value of his work as art.

To the casual relativist who contends that this is not so (casual because they still, after all, insist that some works of art are good and others bad) one can answer from that inexhaustible source of wisdom—experience. The experience of millions of readers proves that disagreeing with a writer’s worldview is no barrier to appreciation. There are, for instance, not many Tolstoyans in today’s world (or in yesterday’s for that matter), and only a handful of people alive would be able to empathise with the politics of, say, Dryden, but this does not stop countless readers from enjoying their work. True, as one approaches the present, it becomes harder to find names which transcend the political divide, but there are still a few: García Márquez (whose long-time support for Fidel Castro, it may be noted, has cost his reputation far less than Naipaul’s heresy), Australia’s own Les Murray, and Naipaul himself. One thing these names have in common, however, is that they are all famous, and first-rate; it is a general rule that the better the artist, the less the reader has to share in his views to appreciate the work. In the case of many second and third-rate writers, whose books are either blatant propaganda or hack journalism disguised as art, the political content is sometimes the only content, and so one has to agree with the writer’s views if one is to take anything from the work.

As well as their quality, the degree of political agreement needed to appreciate someone’s work is dependent on the kind of writer they are. For lyric poets, little or no agreement is required, even when, as with some truly great artists like Lorca or Blok, politics was the essential background or even the subject matter of their writing. For novelists, politics becomes more important, but there are still examples of talent triumphing over a suspect doctrine, including not only the classic case of Tolstoy but even someone like Sartre, whose view of the world was truly absurd (and not in the sense in which he used the word). The genres of writing in which political agreement should not be essential, but in practice often is, are history and cultural criticism. One has to be a very good historian or cultural critic, or, on the contrary a very bad one—one who just repeats the common cant of the age—to be acceptable to a broad spectrum.

More than his novels, or even his off-hand jokes in interviews and the press, it is Naipaul’s non-fiction, the historical and cultural analysis contained in his travel writing, which has got him into trouble. That he is still almost universally acknowledged as a great writer is a tribute to his stature; but this has meant that critics have taken to talking about the “contradiction”, or—a favourite word this—the “paradox” between his talent and his politics. Apart from the implication that talent is inherently “left-wing”, it is not really clear what such a statement could mean. First, what exactly is V.S. Naipaul’s politics, or at least, what is it supposed to be? Left-wing, right-wing, conservative, radical—any of these vague, debased, and now historically outdated terms? And second, assuming the first question has been answered, what it could it mean to say that a writer’s politics was a contradiction of his work? Surely Naipaul himself, or any writer, would reject such a notion, even if they accepted that their politics and their art emerged from different parts of their selves; and does this therefore bind us to the idea that the critic knows better than the artist about the inner workings of his mind?

The truth is that Naipaul is political, and his writing, particularly his non-fiction, is very political. But the man himself was nevertheless right when he said in his Nobel lecture that he has “no political idea”. Naipaul’s prejudices, deep and sometimes wrong-headed as they are, have never been organised into a system; and he is well aware of most of them. Thus, the recent line from the otherwise intelligent William Dalrymple that Naipaul’s work represents a “neo-con primer” is doubly absurd: absurd because Naipaul’s view of the Middle East, Islam and Central Asia could not be further away from that of the Wolfowitzes and Rumsfelds, and because the term “neo-con” is, simply, absurd. (Since Dalrymple’s comment came in a review of a book by the rather silly Martin Amis, and was provoked by Amis quoting from Naipaul’s Among the Believers, it at least stands as another demonstration of a universal truth: that there is nothing like being quoted by Martin Amis to damage your reputation.)

Certainly, Naipaul’s critics are right to point out that his judgments of other countries and their peoples are often founded on little scholarly research, and a less than perfect knowledge of the local language. But often, these criticisms seem only the mask of jealousy, particularly in the case of disgruntled academics who feel Naipaul has trespassed on their territory. True, Naipaul is no scholar of Islam, and he does not know Arabic, Persian, Urdu, Pashto, or Indonesian and Malay; but then, he has never claimed these things. Far from thinking himself a scholar, or even an intellectual, Naipaul has only ever aspired in his travel writing to be an open-eyed observer; and it may be that as such he has seen and heard more, and seen and heard more of the obvious, than some more educated, abstract travellers.

The real problem Naipaul has with the literary and academic establishments is that he does not espouse that view of world history which artists in the West, in particular writers, are meant to have. This view can be summed up in a single sentence: that the history of the modern world (and, depending on the degree of fanaticism of the ideologue in question, of the ancient and medieval worlds as well) is the history of the exploitation by the West of everyone else. Like all lies, this story contains some truth; but it is no less a lie for that, and is insulting not only to the millions of Europeans, Americans and Australians whose bones lie alongside those of African slaves, Amerindian tribesmen, and Chinese and Indian labourers at the foundations of the modern world, but to the people of the so-called Third World themselves.

Unlike countless academics and do-gooding journalists, Naipaul does not patronise the people of the Third World by denying them any responsibility for their pasts and presents. Instead, he tries to describe them as people; and in his descriptions of them, in Iran, in Pakistan, particularly in Malaysia and Indonesia, they often come out rather well (it seems that many critics, associating Naipaul’s habitual harshness with racial or cultural prejudice, have not read his writings on the United States, in which the judgment of Sir Vidia falls just as heavily on Atlanta businessmen as it once did on Iranian peasants).

Rejecting that vague and inconsistent cultural relativism which is seen as the mark of the “progressive” mind—inconsistent because, when it comes to the crunch, its underlying assumption is the superiority of Western notions of “human rights” and “cultural pluralism”—Naipaul refuses to hold different peoples to different standards. His remark, quoted by French, that “the mistake of Western vanity is to think that the universal civilisation that exists now is a purer racial one”, suggests a vision of the world in which all people, and not only those who are white and Western, can claim the rights, and with those the responsibilities, of citizens.

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