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 that sets up the shock of recognition in the reader. Something seems to have gone wrong with the machinery of the fable, to use the eighteenth-century word.
Mr. Stone, as we first meet him, is an inveterate bachelor living with a slatternly housekeeper in a villa in south London, employed as librarian in a shadowy business organization—it has a name, Excal, but no discernible functions—of huge dimensions. Retirement from business faces Mr. Stone within a very few years; he marries a middle-aged widow and, oppressed by the prospect of retirement and the apparent misery of the retired everywhere, devises a scheme for retired employees of Excal that shall restore to them self-respect and sense of purpose. The scheme is adopted: the order of Knights Companion of Excal comes into being. Mr. Stone has his moment of triumph—until he realizes that it is not thereby postponing his own retirement and that the credit for his triumph is anyway being taken by a public relations officer years younger than himself.
This notion of the Knights Companion provides good moments of incidental comedy, as in the account of the annual dinner of the knights; but I find it too shadowy, too incompletely worked out to convince, even as a possible publicity gimmick for a business corporation. It suggests fantasy rooted in no observed reality. And this lack of reality pervades the whole story, is heightened, indeed, by the domestic circumstances, the pattern of life, in which Mr. Stone lives. The exteriors of south London—that vast anonymous acreage—Naipaul captures beautifully; but what goes on behind them is another matter.
I can best explain my sense of dismay at the failure here by thinking that Naipaul has approached his south London scene through memories of its Edwardian laureates. We are shown, it seems to me, the south London of Grossmith—Mr. Stone might be a bachelor Pooter—of Barry Pain, even of the Gissing of In the Year of the Jubilee. What is not registered is a feeling of the actuality of the present. Mr. Stone himself appears a fossil figure, an untypical survivor, and the sense of this largely destroys the power of this fable itself.
March 19, 1964