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The Lessons of the Master

1.

Many writers—myself included—owe a great debt to V.S. (“Vidia”) Naipaul. He opened up new literary possibilities, ways of seeing and describing the world, especially the non-Western world. The hardest thing for admirers is to avoid imitating him. To sound like a writer one respects may be a sincere form of flattery, but it is also a profound misunderstanding of what makes Naipaul, or indeed any good writer, extraordinary. Finding his own voice is something of an obsession to which Naipaul returns often in his reflections on writing: the constant search for his place in the world, a unique perspective, a writerly compass.

Naipaul’s voice, which some younger writers are tempted to mimic, cannot be defined by citing his opinions on race, the colonial experience, India, literature, or anything else. His views are frequently designed to shock and outrage, thrown out, especially in interviews, as a kind of smokescreen to protect the autonomy of “the writer.” No, what makes Naipaul’s writing so inspiring is the way he makes an art out of experience, travel, careful scrutiny of the physical world, and sharp analysis of ideas, history, culture, politics.

Travel writing” of an earlier generation than Naipaul’s—Robert Byron, Evelyn Waugh, Peter Fleming—was often a form of escape, for the author and the reader; escape from dull, gray, philistine England, escape from the strictures of class, sexual mores, and the stifling charms of boarding school education. Foreigners and their peculiar ways were infuriating, to be sure, but also highly amusing.

Naipaul’s books about India, Africa, the Caribbean, Latin America, and Asia, though sometimes comical, are not of this type. Nor are they opportunities for self-display, another staple of the travel genre. Naipaul’s literary discovery of the world is marked by the way he uses his eyes and ears. Impatient with abstractions, he listens to people, not just their views, but the tone of their voices, the telling evasions, the precise choice of words. His eyes, meanwhile, register everything, the clothes, the gestures, the facial expressions, the physical details that allow him to pin people down, like butterflies in the expert hands of a lepidopterist. These observations are filtered through a mind that is alert, never sentimental, and deeply suspicious of romantic cant.

Naipaul’s voice, in fiction and non-fiction, is personal in the sense that he draws his material from his own experiences; his travels, his childhood in Trinidad, his life in England. Yet he has chosen to leave much out. His first wife, Pat Hale, who died in 1996, is never mentioned, even though she accompanied him on trips to India and elsewhere. Nor is Margaret Murray, Naipaul’s Anglo-Argentinian mistress for many years, who was frequently with him when his wife was not. There is no special reason why they should be mentioned. They were not part of the story that the writer wished to tell.

The merit of writers’ biographies continues to be disputed. For some, the work is all we need to know. Others say they love the books, so they want to know more about the people who wrote them. Then there is always the possibility that the life will throw light on the books and deepen our understanding of them. Naipaul himself had this to say:

The lives of writers are a legitimate subject of inquiry; and the truth should not be skimped. It may well be, in fact, that a full account of a writer’s life might in the end be more a work of literature and more illuminating—of a cultural or historical moment—than the writer’s books.

Nonetheless, when I was approached in the early 1990s by Gillon Aitken, Naipaul’s literary agent, with the idea of writing an authorized biography, I was intrigued, flattered, and deeply apprehensive. The idea of writing the life of a man who was still alive was daunting enough. Such projects typically result in acrimony. The idea of writing the life of a man as fastidious and difficult as V.S. Naipaul was particularly daunting. And I was not at all sure that delving into the nooks and crannies of his private life would be a pleasure for me, or enlightening for the readers. I can still remember my sense of embarrassment when Naipaul, looking intently at his shiny brown shoes, began to tell me about his sexual frustrations, as we sat opposite one another in his oddly impersonal London flat. I knew then that this project was not for me.1 I doubted whether an honest book could be written by anyone while Naipaul was still alive.

I was wrong. The truth is not skimped in Patrick French’s excellent book. Naipaul gave his biographer complete access to his papers, including his late wife’s quite depressing correspondence and diaries; he was interviewed at great length, and did not ask for any changes in the manuscript. Not only did he talk to French, but he apparently did so with remarkable candor. The result is almost the invention of a new genre: the confessional biography. And, yes, the sex actually is relevant to the work.

2.

The public image of V.S. Naipaul, distilled from interviews with the writer and anecdotes passed on by people who have met him, is of an angry man, quick to take offense, capable of extraordinary and gratuitous acts of rudeness, obsessed with his status as a great writer, willfully shocking in his views, and incapable of suffering fools, or anyone really, including those nearest to him, gladly. This, by the way, is not the Naipaul I knew. I found him amusing, courteous, even a little diffident. But I could see flashes of the other Naipaul, the man who loves to outrage. The source of this love is one of the fascinating themes running through the biography.

Some people who have felt Naipaul’s verbal lashes see him as a bigot who turned on his own Caribbean background by taking on the worst prejudices of the Indian Brahmin and the British colonial Blimp.2 Although bitterness about the way black politicians in Trinidad went after the Indian minority in the 1950s certainly affected Naipaul’s views of his native island, and his harsh comments on African cultural and political life suggest a less than friendly attitude toward black people, Naipaul is too complex a figure to be dismissed as a racist. For in fact he has written about Africans, as well as Asians, with more intimacy and sympathy than many hand-wringing leftists who take a more abstract view of humanity.

I think French is right to explain (which is not to condone) some of Naipaul’s more provocative views as a form of mischief, which Trinidadians call picong, from the French piquant, a type of sharp talk where, in French’s words, “the boundary between good and bad taste is deliberately blurred, and the listener sent reeling.” French cites the opening of Naipaul’s The Middle Passage as an example. It is a book about the West Indies, its history of massacre and slavery, the self-hatred of the blacks resulting from colonial indignity, the corruption of nationalist politics, the cruelty of race hatred. Naipaul begins by describing his voyage to Trinidad by ship from England, where he had been working for the BBC Caribbean program. He writes:

There was such a crowd of immigrant type West Indians on the boat-train platform at Waterloo that I was glad I was travelling first class to the West-Indies.

His eyes are drawn by “a very tall and ill-made Negro,” whose “grotesque” features he describes with horrified relish.

Naipaul denied that he was setting himself up as superior:

I’m being very mischievous…. I’d be allowed to say things like that among the West Indians who were doing that Caribbean programme. We made those kind of jokes. I wasn’t aware that an English reader might worry about where I was positioning myself.

Maybe. But it is true, contrary to his reputation, that Naipaul is just as capable of directing his picong toward the English themselves. French quotes from an interview he gave in 1980: “In England people are very proud of being very stupid. A great price is being paid here for the cult of stupidity and idleness…. Living here has been a kind of castration, really.”

V.S. Naipaul as a Trinidadian trickster, playing the fool while getting others to pick up his expensive bills, having his fun by enraging Western liberals with opinions that mimic the prejudices of the old colonial masters: it is an interesting and I think plausible take on the public figure. Commenting on Sir Vidia’s Shadow (1998), Paul Theroux’s rather bitter memoir of his former friend and idol,3 Lloyd Best, Naipaul’s old schoolmate, remarked:

All these little Trinidadian smart-man things: the way he would sing calypso and whistle, the way he would take the mickey out of people, provoking them. Naipaul expects the responses that he’s going to get; I’d say that it’s second nature to him, performing in that way.

In his books, however, Naipaul is less frivolous. His rages at shoddy towels in hotel bathrooms, the trivial shenanigans of third-world taxi drivers, or the incompetence of the kitchen staff in some tropical hotel might sometimes be played to comic effect. But more often they are honest reflections of his own “raw nerves,” of the man who is desperate to throw off the humiliations of colonial society while not feeling entirely at ease in the metropolitan world in which he has made his home.

Like many writers of fiction or nonfiction, Naipaul has created himself as a character, a semimythical figure expressive of deeper concerns than the desire to shock. He is portrayed as a young man who escaped the provinciality of a small Caribbean island only to feel the sting of racial and colonial prejudice in England, as a writer who sees great achievement as the only way to shake off colonial indignity, as a man who seeks to express the truth about societies so ravaged by violence and degradation that their people can only find refuge in lies. The great merit of a superb biography, such as this one, is that it can deepen our understanding of the literary character by telling us more about its creator.

Naipaul grew up in a society built on fictions, a place where family names were often made up, where people pretended to be all kinds of things, few of them true. Again French quotes Lloyd Best, a black Trinidadian who attended Queen’s Royal College, a British-style school with high academic standards, at the same time as Naipaul (C.L.R. James was another alumnus):

The most important single feature of Trinidadian culture is the extent to which masks are indispensable, because there are so many different cultures and ethnicities in this country that people have to play a vast multiplicity of roles, each of which has got its own mask depending on where they are.

  1. 1

    This is not quite the way Patrick French relates the story of my brief involvement. Which just goes to show how the same events can leave different memories.

  2. 2

    Derek Walcott’s take on Naipaul would be an example of this. Naipaul was an early admirer of his fellow Nobel laureate, but later expressed less obliging opinions of his work. The feeling appears to be mutual.

  3. 3

    Sir Vidia’s Shadow (Houghton Mifflin, 1998).

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