It’s been over two months since Vidia Naipaul passed, and every one of the past nine weeks I’ve set out to write a suitable tribute, one that is sufficiently respectful of the legacy of one of the most garlanded writers of his generation and that manages to avoid the spiteful tone he so often inspired with his unfiltered, entitled, and disparaging views. Even as I start this tenth attempt I struggle to skirt around the issue of Naipaul’s public persona without reproducing the sort of comment that made every obituary I read in the wake of his death sound like a gossip column from the latest issue of Cosmopolitan.
So let’s get this straight from the beginning: Naipaul was a notoriously controversial figure who actually relished controversy, and therefore fuelled it lavishly with prejudiced and misconceived opinions on just about everything, except for the elitist life he so badly craved and deliberately carved for himself in the English countryside – and he probably bad-mouthed that too, just that I haven’t come across it (yet).
But for all his public relations debacles, and there were many, he always remained consistent in portraying himself as an unlikeable genius who by a tragic twist of fate had been born in a place, Trinidad, that was well beneath him. Of all things Naipaul could be accused of, humility isn’t one of them; neither is hypocrisy, though, for he rarely missed a chance to emphasise the fact that he would not conform to politically correct ideas of cultural diversity and equality. If in the process he also fell short of the most elementary notions of generosity or even human kindness, well, so be it – in any case, it all added to the ugly mask he was bent on making his own.
But why would a man with the talent, the wit, the sharp sense of humour evidenced by Naipaul in his fiction, especially his earliest work, want to ruin his own reputation so badly?
The most obvious explanation would link Naipaul with another islander, of a different kind, Oscar Wilde, who once famously quipped that the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about. This, however, strikes me as too simplistic an answer, not least because Naipaul seems to me to have been hopeless as a PR stuntman.
Which is not to say his provocative behaviour was accidental. On the contrary, it would be naïve to assume that Naipaul’s recurrent forays into the public eye were, for the most part, anything other than him playacting the role he had scripted for himself, even if in time he might have believed his own invention so wholeheartedly he ended up morphing into it – the mask and the bearer becoming indistinguishable. And yet, while Naipaul’s self-inflicted character assassination might well have been calculated, I would suggest his purpose was not so much to attract attention (though that likely didn’t hurt) but rather to open a rift – a proper canyon, in fact – between his person(a) and his work.
I have the impression that Naipaul’s driving ambition was to break into the literary canon of the British Empire – the very standard that the colonial educational system would have made him regard as superlative and from which, by virtue of his heritage and his birthplace, he was irremediably excluded. Moreover, he wasn’t satisfied with a marginal place within it, he wanted to shape the direction in which it would move in the future – and he wanted his literature, not his personality or his social circle, to effect this change. Samuel Johnson is famous for his dictionary; Ezra Pound gained immortality with his ruthless editing of The Waste Land; V.S. Naipaul wanted his name to live on in his writing, not his political views or his personal life.
Ironically, the factors that turned Naipaul into an outsider when he attended Oxford to read English on a government scholarship in 1950 were precisely the ones he would exploit when he announced his presence in the literary scene a few years later. The son of a self-taught journalist, Seepersad Naipaul, and just two generations removed from his family’s arrival from India as indentured labourers, Vidia grew up in the heavily idiosyncratic environment of Trinidad’s Indian society, which somehow viewed itself as different – superior – to the rest of the island’s. Yet Naipaul identified neither with India nor with Trinidad, but rather with the British Empire, an abstract notion that belongs nowhere in particular, least of all in Oxford.
Away from his comfort zone, in a distant land, facing the grey for the first time, and for the first time immersed in a context where he could not excel by default, Vidia turned to his past for inspiration, recalling the colours and the people, the cadence and the rhythm of a portion of the Empire that had seemingly passed England by unnoticed. This was the source of the collection of short stories titled Miguel Street, the only one of the six or seven books by Naipaul I’ve ever read which I truly envy. Working for the BBC at the time, Naipaul showed Miguel Street to the publisher André Deutsch, who suggested he write a novel instead. The Mystic Masseur came first, and was published straight away in 1957, followed by The Suffrage of Elvira in 1958, before his collection of stories finally saw the light of day one year later.
The Naipaul we see in these works, his corpus prior to what has become his signature novel, A House for Mr Biswas (1961), already displays the mordant humour and inventive story-telling technique that would make him famous; he is light-hearted and incisive at the same time, exposing the ignorance of a people all too willing to believe in miracles, tearing to pieces the inner workings of a democratic system that is simply not in keeping with the social conscience of the island, and yet taking the reader on a journey of discovery of an alien and altogether magical land. Above all, what stands out in these three early works is Naipaul’s ability to sketch touching and vivid characters who embody the wild diversity of Trinidad’s society and who live on beyond the pages of his books, in the readers’ imaginations and, in many cases, in other writers’ works.
A House for Mr Biswas stands in sharp contrast to Naipaul’s earlier work, not only in its tone – though that too – but rather in the overarching ambition of the project: this is a serious novel, conceived from beginning to end as a tribute to Naipaul’s dead father, a lasting, carefully crafted and highly accomplished testimony of the strife, the pain and the modest achievements others had to endure for Naipaul to exist. In some sense that is what makes Mr Biswas stand out, because in writing a family saga that maps his own existence Naipaul is both callous and charitable, critical and forgiving at the same time, opening a line of communication that turns the reader into a complicit witness of a tale of substance.
This inherent message in Mr Biswas – that we are faced with a story that matters, told in appropriately momentous fashion – has withstood not only the test of time but also the constant abuse that Naipaul inflicted upon his own standing as he piled stain upon stain on his public mask. Even today, and perhaps even more so in the past two months, it’s almost impossible to have a conversation about Naipaul without concluding, inevitably, that you can say anything you like about the man, but Mr Biswas is a remarkable book.
I admit that I have my issues with Mr Biswas, in particular because of its narrow focus. As a sponsored student from the backwaters of the Empire, Naipaul will have experienced in the flesh the effects of cultural indifference towards his place of origin, of the sort of cultural snobbery bred by the colonial system. But in Mr Biswas Naipaul’s attitude towards non-Indian elements of Trinidadian society is as dismissive as if it were written by a myopic civil servant of the kind he must have encountered by the dozens in Oxford. To some extent it can be argued that this is merely a literary strategy that mirrors the society in which Mr Biswas, Seepersad’s alter ego, grew up. But in reality this could be done in any of a number of different ways which would, indeed, be more powerful than rendering every other culture invisible in the text.
In a way it’s fitting that A House for Mr Biswas is the book by which Naipaul will be remembered, because this is also the point in his writing at which his vision began narrowing down to the specific prescription of his colonial spectacles. Because this novel in particular deals with issues so close to Naipaul’s core – so sensitive, so emotional – his move away from cultural empathy is disguised by his sympathetic portrayal of Mr Biswas. As Naipaul begins to distance himself, both figuratively and in physical terms (much of his non-fiction writing stems from extensive travels), from his subjects he progressively does away with the sympathy. Ironically, as he embraces more fervently the principles of the colonial system he loses perspective in his assessment of foreign places, of different cultures, of the Other.
Which leaves us with the extraordinary duality of Naipaul’s character, a man who not only rose through the structures of a system meant to siphon talent out of the periphery for the benefit of the Empire, but who in the process reached the highest standards of excellence. Naipaul embodies both the triumph of the colonial system and its most glaring shortcomings – and there’s no doubt he would have been aware of it. But rather than compromising the principles that made him for the sake of a more favourable public image, he chose to go in the opposite direction. Uncannily, his gamble paid off – because despite the alacrity evoked by his name, even the most indignant of Naipaul’s detractors are forced in the end to acknowledge the merit of his writing.
Published in the WEEKender supplement of Sint Maarten’s The Daily Herald newspaper on Saturday October 20, 2018.