Hilary Mantel has contributed over forty reviews and works of fiction to The New York Review since 1989. The following is an extract from “Naipaul’s Book of the World,” a review of V.S. Naipaul’s The Writer and the World. It appeared in the October 24, 2002, issue and may be read in full at nybooks.test/50/Mantel.
There are places on earth where, at certain moments in the cycle of day and night, the two are indistinguishable. It is impossible to know, without other referents, whether you are looking at dawn or dusk. And there are places at the margins of cities, or at the edges of the man-made sprawl of holiday islands, where at twilight growth and decay are indistinguishable; you can’t tell, at first glance, whether you are looking at a building site or a ruin. Is that earth-colored brick waiting for its glassy marble cladding, or is it crumbling back into the condition of soil? And that distant rumble, of traffic or marching feet: Have the entrepreneurs arrived, or is it the barbarians? Is it possible that they are the same?
Instances of crepuscular insight, coupled with the qualms of self-doubt, are for the privileged but disinterested eye; they come more readily to the artist than to the politician or the aid worker or the hard-hatted man driving a digger into the jungle. You have to pick your place to stand, and work by the light of informed intellect, before you can judge whether social institutions or indeed whole societies are accreting meaning or leaking it away.
Over forty years of traveling and writing, V.S. Naipaul has made himself both a judge and an expert witness in the topography of “half-made societies.” Visiting India in 1962, he saw “towns which, even while they develop, have an air of decay.” Montevideo in 1973 is a “ghost city” mimicking European glories. It is populated by statues and the figures of historical tableaux cast in bronze, but their inscriptions, with individual letters fallen away, are becoming indecipherable. The shops are empty but street vendors crowd the sidewalks. The restaurants have no meat. Public clocks have stopped.
As colonizers pack their bags and dream cities dissolve, the bush is always waiting to creep back. Tenderness toward the bush is an emotion only the secure can feel. Only those who are free to leave them can be sentimental about the wild places of the earth. The bush is a recurrent conceit in Naipaul’s work. It has “its own logical life,” but it is a logic that leads nowhere, except into the self-serving thickets of irrationality. It is the place where the social contract breaks down; it represents not just the physical encroachment of nature but the proliferating undergrowth of the human psyche.
From the first, Naipaul’s sardonic and fastidious approach distinguished him from those who write about the underdeveloped world in eggshell pieties. He has a sharp eye for the intellectually fraudulent, and is a scourge of self-delusion; he gives the underdog as bad a name as his master. Oppression, he notices, doesn’t make people saintly, it makes them potential killers; all victims are dangerous. On the one hand he has been accused of contempt for peoples of the third world; less liberal readers have embraced him as a sort of projection of themselves, more derogatory about developing countries than they would ever dare to be, his color and ethnic background excusing him from the obloquy they would attract if they expressed the same distaste and unease.
One reason to welcome the present volume is that a gap has opened, over the years, between what Naipaul has written, what people think he has written, and what they feel he ought to have written. His asides are often more pessimistic than the body of his work, and his dogmatic pronouncements in interviews—“Africa has no future”—contrast with the subtlety of thought and expression in his written pieces. He writes with delicacy and compassion about individual lives, and much of the work in this collection employs a calm perspective that his detractors often miss. And yet, there is no respite from the Naipaul personality, ferociously intelligent and permanently aggrieved.
As a travel writer he knows journeys are to be endured, not enjoyed. They look glamorous only in retrospect. Most people’s journeys, in the course of history, have not been voluntary. Transportation, slavery, and forced migration have taken more people away from their birthplace than has the desire for novelty. Naipaul is spiritually among them, as remote from the tourist mentality as he is from the mind-set of those travelers who get into trouble only to feel smug on getting out of it. He is at all times anxious about his own person—the witness, after all, must be preserved—and his faculty of physical disgust is highly developed.
Given the chance, he heads straight for the nearest international hotel. He knows that the unfamiliar need not be sought, for it comes to find you; for the nervous man, familiarity can be destroyed by a walk into the next room. The real undiscovered country is other people, human beings in all their singularity. He lets them speak and shape his narrative for him, and his respect for their stories is far removed from the misanthropy with which he is sometimes taxed. It is true that he has a dread of the flamboyant and the willfully eccentric: “I recognized her as a ‘character,’” he says, warily eyeing the manageress when checking into the only hotel in Anguilla that has electricity. “Characters lie on my spirit like lead.”
Fastidious in his person as in his intellect, Naipaul is a puritan in matters of style. It is the spareness of his effects, his exactness, which transfixes the reader. Naipaul’s contempt for “fine writing” is clear. He cultivates plainness, so that his actual words are seldom remembered by the reader; what lingers is their authoritative rhythm, an impression of discrimination and scruple, of wit and restraint. “I work with very strong emotions,” he has said, “and one’s writing is a refining of those emotions.” With Naipaul, style is substance. Each sentence pounces on its meaning, neat as a cat. Each paragraph has attack, dash, élan. There are no jokes, no whimsy; there is no descent to the demotic, no bravura display.
What has been important to Naipaul throughout his career is to make a relationship with language that is clean, unflawed, fit for a man who has had to write himself into being. It is a common experience of expatriates and travelers that, when you meet someone from another culture, you begin to act out a part you feel you have been assigned in an earlier life. Your persona goes into action, and you deliver the lines provided by some mysterious central scripting unit. But there was no one to provide Naipaul with lines. He has had to write his own. He has represented no one but himself, spoken for no one but himself, and spoken in no one else’s language. He seems impervious to the influence of systems, just as he is unaltered by changing fashions in writing. You sense that the curve of evolution in his own work comes from within himself and is something he alone fully understands.
Perhaps what we will say about Naipaul was that he was the self-made man who didn’t stop at weaving the cloth for his own garments but clothed his own bones in prose. We will say he was the rational man who was afraid to see night fall, because it falls within himself. His shining belief in order and progress is stained by an area of internal darkness: by a natural apprehension—though not a certainty—that the power of reason will be defeated. “The aim has always been to fill out my world picture, and the purpose comes from my childhood: to make me more at ease with myself.”
To our profit, this is the one aim he has missed. His readers may complain that they are trapped in an enactment of his own psychodrama, but the point is that it is not simply his own; we are all afraid of the dark, and though Naipaul is an isolate, he is not a solipsist. The narrator of the novel The Enigma of Arrival writes, “To see the possibility, the certainty, of ruin, even at the moment of creation; it was my temperament.” Naipaul’s myth is that of the artist who has suffered more from his art than his life, more from his interpretations of reality than from reality itself. He is the person most haunted by what he has rejected, by the childhood he has cast off, by the private fear he has made into a universal condition. Wherever he goes, he is sailing the inland sea.