Mr. Stone and the Knights Companion
Mr. Stone and the Knights Companion strikes one as being very much an interim novel. Together with a quite dissimilar novelist, George Lamming, V. S. Naipaul is one of the two best novelists to have emerged from the British Caribbean lands. His theme in his earlier books has been the comedy of multiracial society in Trinidad, and, like this new novel, they have been mainly short, the exception being his last book but one, A House for Mr. Biswas, where for the first time one saw him working on an extended scale, tracing in almost Edwardian detail the history of a family through three generations.
With Lamming’s In the Castle of My Skin, A House for Mr. Biswas seems to me the most successful of the West Indian novels. Its subject is the disintegration of a Hindu family of peasants and shopkeepers in face of the pressure exercised upon it by a society itself unstable owing to the diversity and incongruity of its components and by historical change, by the sudden influence, for example, of American values brought into Trinidad by American troops during the last war.
Naipaul approaches his material with affectionate detachment—at his best he is a superb comic writer—and the key to his attitude lies, I think, in his representation of the central character, Mr. Biswas, the odd-man-out of his family, the ineffectual rebel whose imagination exceeds his education. Set in a disconcertingly exotic milieu, he seemed, to an English reader, a disconcertingly familiar figure, a Trinidadian East Indian Mr. Polly.
Naipaul has now spent something like half his life in England, and his dilemma as a novelist is obvious. The main interest of Mr. Stone and the Knights Companion is that it suggests a first tentative, crab-wise movement towards a solution of the dilemma. It is set in contemporary London, its characters are English. All the same, I wish Naipaul had been bolder and less crab-wise, for Mr. Stone and the Knights Companion is really a very odd work that, despite its patent distinction, fails to satisfy.
Naipaul is a very exact writer, a stylist in the best sense of a word we now tend to sniff at. He is one of those rare novelists—Evelyn Waugh is another—whose every sentence, one feels, has been worked over, re-shaped, fined down until it not only expresses the maximum of meaning in the fewest words but also gives the reader the maximum pleasure to read. As a piece of prose, Mr. Stone and the Knights Companion is as delightful as anything Naipaul has written.
It is a parable about old age and the realization that old age is imminent and cannot be stayed and, beyond that, I suspect it is a parable about art, or rather of the temporary nature of artistic success for the artist himself and the sense of failure that follows. What comes out, however, is the statement of a general truth rather than the vivid apprehension of a particular truth …