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A mind so fine : the contradictions of V. S. Naipaul.

Discussed in this essay:

Literary Occasions: Essays, by V. S. Naipaul. Edited by Pankaj Mishra. Knopf, 2003. 206 pages. $24.

Naipaul's Strangers, by Dagmar Barnouw. Indiana University Press, 2003. 200 pages. $22.95.

Arriving at Oxford University from a down-at-heel family in Trinidad, the eighteen-year-old V. S. Naipaul wrote: "Gone are the days of the aristocrats. Nearly everyone comes to Oxford on a state grant. The standard of the place naturally goes down." It was as though Dick Cheney were to complain that there were too few Trotskyists in his golf club. My own entry into the dreaming spires, a decade or so later, was unfortunate for just the opposite reason: the place was positively swarming with patricians, almost all of whom seemed to be called Nigel. Towering in stature as a result of generations of fine breeding, they brayed rather than spoke, elbowed the townspeople oft the thin medieval pavements, and joked about letting loose their hounds on "oiks" (working-class undergraduates) like myself. As a stunted North-of-England plebeian, I found myself ducking servilely between their legs like Gulliver in Brodingnag. It was the kind of place in which one would as soon have worn a pink tutu as sported jeans. Naipaul would have been in his element.

Most of that was to change as the demotic sixties hit their stride. Previously, working-class students would disappear for three days or so into some private room before emerging mysteriously bereft of their Glaswegian or West Country accents. Now everyone was speaking trough their noses like John Lennon, distressing their vowels, and meticulously inserting the odd glottal stop into their speech. The patricians were still in evidence, but rumor had it that there were plans for confining them to a special reservation in Magdalen College deer park, where they would be publicly fed three times a day.

Arriving in England only to become plus anglais que les Anglais is a familiar emigre tale. V. S. Naipaul, who came to the country in 1950 and has made it his home ever since, is one of the latest in a venerable line of literary refugees, several of them among the most eminent figures in modern English literature. There was Joseph Conrad, the Pole who commended the chuckleheaded values of the British merchant navy; Henry James, the American who attended English country-house parties as devotedly as Madonna drops in on fashion shows; T. S. Eliot, who looked and sounded like a rather dotty Anglican vicar. Eliot famously remarked of his compatriot James that "he had a mind so fine that no idea could violate it," which was a backhanded way of congratulating him on being a kosher Englishman, since the English have customs and pieties rather than fancy theories. It was self-congratulation too: it takes one expertly disguised expatriate to know another.

George Bernard Shaw recognized immediately that his fellow Dubliner Oscar Wilde had appointed himself Irish jester to the English court, a role he shared with Shaw and which would later be inherited by Brendan Behan. Shaw was also aware of how dangerous as well as exhilarating this bit part was. The English relished Wilde's mimicry of them but also suspected that imitation was the sincerest form of mockery. (1t was Naipaul who was later to put into currency the phrase "mimic men," the title of one of his more lugubrious novels.) Wilde's use of the English language was a shade too polished and perfect; the genuine English aristocrat of the Victorian era said things like "huntin'" and "shootin'," too indolent to labor over his consonants. And indeed, without Farquhar, Steele, Sheridan, Goldsmith, Shaw, Wilde, and O'Casey, there would have been precious little English stage comedy to boast of. Who better placed to write comedy than those who know the natives' language and conventions from the inside, yet are also foreign enough to cast a sardonic eye on their sanctities? The Irish did not only have to send the British their rents and cattle; they also had to write most of their great literature for them.

In Ireland, as in Naipaul's Trinidad, one of the most revered of all native customs was getting out of the place. The Mountains in Ireland, somewhat unusually, are ringed around the coast, as though divinely arranged to keep the natives in; but writers could usually rely on being driven out by church and state to Boston or Birmingham. Although Naipaul found himself hemmed in by an ocean rather than a mountain range, crossing it proved to be a one-way passage, as it did for James Joyce. Like Naipaul, Joyce abandoned his country early but never ceased to revisit it in imagination; having escaped in reality, both men could then find their way back in fantasy. Joyce once remarked that it was this freedom from English social and literary convention that lay at the root of his talent. Deprived of a stable tradition, the colonial writer has to pillage, to parody, to make it up as lie or she goes along, so that exile and experiment go together like Laurel and Hardy. It is not surprising that Ireland was the only region of the British Isles early last century to produce a flourishing indigenous modernism. Otherwise, Britain had to import its modernism, along with its Ford cars and chinoiserie.

Naipaul is not nearly as avant-garde a writer as Joyce (who is?), bur he has been both blessed and afflicted by a similarly skewed relationship to the metropolis. Joyce leapt over the imperial capital of London into the arms of the continentals, with whom Ireland had enjoyed a fruitful cultural relationship ever since the monastic emigres of the Middle Ages. (His fellow Dubliner Samuel Beckett was to do much the satire some years later.) As a Trinidadian, however, Naipaul had no such organic affinity to continental Europe; it was England or nothing.

In the litany of literary refugees, Wilde, Shaw, and Joyce stand out in one notable way. They are the only ones who were adamantly on the political left--though Stalinist Might describe Shaw more accurately than "socialist," and Joyce's radical sympathies were short-lived. The others were either studiously "unpolitical," or ensconced somewhere on the political right. For many--Conrad, Pound, Yeats, Eliot, Lewis--the right in question was an unpleasantly embattled one, rather than the moderate Burkean Toryism of many of the English natives. If you think too much about conservatism, you cannot really be an English conservative, and other mimic men recognized as much. The resilience of this brand of conservatism lies in its distaste for the political in favor of the customary, instinctual, and spontaneous. When Naipaul disowns politics by informing us, in his acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize, that he has "no guiding political idea" and cherishes his "intuition alone," he is telling us his politics. It is, presumably, pure intuition that leads him to conclude Art Area of Darkness with the declaration that the Indians have no sense of history and their country "will never cease to require the arbitration of a conqueror."

There is, then, a well-attested affinity in British culture between the emigre and the conservative intellectual-not only in the literary field but all the way from Wittgenstein and Namier to Popper and Gombrich. Like Conrad, some of these luminaries were in flight from political turbulence at the heart of Europe and turned to what seemed a more sedate, traditionalist milieu in the United Kingdom. Others, such as James and Eliot, were allured by what felt like a more "organic" social order--mannered, devious, and stratified--in which their thought could flourish more vigorously than it would in an autocratic culture or in a brashly explicit one like the United States. And emigres do not kick a hole in the lifeboat they are clambering aboard; they compensate for their outsider status by becoming honorary aristocrats-but aristocrats of wit and style rather than of blood and property. From Wilde to Tom Stoppard, Ernest Gelluer to Isaiah Berlin, expatriates intent oo out-Englishing the English have resorted to humor, satire, and an acerbic vein of wit. In doing so, they become spiritually superior to the philistine middle classes who want to ship them back home.

Naipaul's conservatism has been lambasted often enough, notably by postcolonial critics, though his opinion of this school of thought is not, one imagines, all that different from what Clint Eastwood's would be if he ever got wind of it. Dagmar Barnouw's Naipaul's Strangers is a bravely unfashionable attempt to rescue the writer from those who accuse him of racism, Chauvinism, and snobbery; and, although some might consider this as easy as defending George Bush from the charge of being parochial, the book yields some admirably sensitive readings of Naipaul's prose, despite being extravagantly uncritical of its revered subject. Its pages are everywhere redolent of the smell of incense.

Barnouw does aim a few well-targeted shots at the postcolonial romanticizing of "the other," recording Naipaul's distaste for, in the words of another critic, "privileged people who are sentimental about primitivism in the Third World." Anyone suffering from this widespread affliction could certainly do worse than read a few of Naipaul's books, even if the cure might turn out to be more nauseating than the disease. This, after all, is the man whose oracular pronouncements include the judgment that nothing was ever created in the West Indies; that the West Indians never seriously doubted the virtue of the imperialist culture to which they aspired; and that the ethnic situation of African Americans cannot be the subject of scrims literature. If Naipaul is understandably irritated by well-heeled sentimentalists, it is partly because they dispute his insinuation that when it comes to colonialism, the natives were at least as much to blame as their masters.

If you do not wish to provoke your compatriots to helpless fury, it is probably advisable not to open your account of the Caribbean, The Middle Passage, with the sentence: "There was such a crowd of immigrant-type West Indians on the boat-train platform at Waterloo that I was glad I was traveling first class to the West Indies." Boa Vista, in Brazil near the border with British Guiana, is a "preposterous city" (the Waugh-like epithet is significant), which probably means, among other things, that they did not bring Naipaul his coffee quickly enough. It is hard to know, muses Naipaul, what the Guianese are thinking--just as it is hard to know what he himself is thinking when churning out an obtuse cliche such as that. Like the equally dyspeptic traveler Paul Theroux, Sir Vidia seems to find most of the people he meets in his wanderings so disagreeable that one wonders why he doesn't just stay at home.

Perhaps traveling is a way of staying faithful to having grown up nowhere in particular; you can feel homeless anywhere at alt. Like Gulliver, Naipaul finds the same pettiness, corruption, and betrayal everywhere he goes. India, he announces in An Area of Darkness, "invited conquest" and has nothing to contribute to the world. It is a country "with an infinite capacity for being plundered," which is rather like claiming that Ethiopian children have an infinite capacity for starving to death. The Taj Mahal, he reflects, might as well be transported slab by slab to the United States, since in India it is sheerly wasteful. No doubt some enterprising Texan will take the hint. In Naipaul's own contemptuous imagery, India comes down to the starving child defecating by the wayside and the mangy dog waiting to eat up the excrement.

These and similarly insulting fatuities are the language of a writer who detests political generalities, works by innocent intuition alone, and is celebrated by Barnouw, among others, for the delicate particularity of his perceptions. The portrayal of the Muslim world in Among the Believers would make the book enjoyable bedtime reading for Richard Perte. With their Jantesian sense of nuanced judgment and fine discrimination, novels such as Guerrillas and In a Free State appear to view all colonial emancipation as self-interested, self-deluding fantasy. Naipaul has only to sniff an ideal to detect in it the stirrings of self-aggrandizement. He complains of his people having been stripped of history, but does just the same himself in order to avoid the discomforting truth that colonialism may have had a hand in their present plight.

Few writers have a shrewder understanding of what has been called colonial cringe, and few are more adept at analyzing the self-serving myths of the powerless. In my own country of Ireland, it has not been unknown for some dejected soul to down one pint of Guinness too many out of sheer depression over the Gaelic defeat at the battle of Kinsale in 1601, or for the odd nationalist, outraged by the injustice of the eighteenth-century Penal Laws, to find it hard to struggle out of bed in the morning. Colonial peoples can indeed be marked by shame and fantasy, self-loathing and self-deception, pious rhetoric and sentimental bluster. But some of them can also laugh about the fact; and there is a difference between recognizing this syndrome and asserting, as some in Ireland have, that the Irish themselves were largely responsible for the Great Famine. This is just another version of the self-odium for which the natives are being castigated.

The colonial who rebukes his compatriots had better be careful that his complaints are not just another symptom of the whining he condemns in them. Naipaul sees with brutal realism how the dispossessed can sometimes collude in their own subjugation, but he does not dwell at length on the moral obscenity of the subjugation itself. Instead, he believes that all causes, including the idea of justice, are corrupting, that every roan is an island, and that pity and compassion for a colonial people will not do because they baselessly encourage hope.

Rare is the writer as exquisitely talented as he who is so long on observation and so short on sympathy. Naipaul does not seem to know the meaning of geniality, which may well be the ultimate judgment of the colonial system under which he grew up. In An Area of Darkness, we learn at one point that Naipaul's female companion has suddenly fainted at his side--a surprising revelation, since he had not previously bothered to mention her presence at all. What champions like Barnouw would no doubt call steelily disenchanted realism is in fact the lopsided antirealism of one who can hardly bring himself to acknowledge the realities of love and courage. When he writes of how the powerless lie about themselves and to themselves, he cannot resist ruining the point by adding "since it is their only resource," which is itself a sort of lie.

Literary Occasions gathers together some of Naipaul's essays about writing, mixing autobiographical pieces, prefaces to his own novels, and his Nobel Prize speech with articles on Conrad, Kipling, Nirad Chaudhuri, and other Indian writers. The volume charts the extraordinary spiral of displacements that make up Naipaul's career. It is a life in which one fantasy gives way to another, one fiction is concealed within a second, one potential homecoming turns out to be yet another assignation with strangeness.

Born into an Indian community in Trinidad, the grandchild of indentured immigrant laborers, Naipaul came from an island that was geographically ambiguous--marooned between the Caribbean and South America--and an ethnic background that was even more so. Trinidadian Indians still had a smattering of their indigenous culture but one that was already on the wane, so Naipaul claims, when lie was a child. He could understand Hindi but not speak it. His community, at home neither in the West nor in the East, held itself aloof from the racially mixed life of the street and knew nothing of Muslims. Naipaul would eventually come to see his own detached, passive, observer like status as a kind of Hindu trait; it certainly proved easily translatable later on into the sardonic, de haut en bas judgments of the English gentleman. In both cases, there is an apartness, a quick sense of caste, and a horror of uncleanness.

This insider/outsider status within Trinidad, which the colonial relation to Britain simply wrote large, was a social one too: the Naipaul family was lower middle class, furnished with some rudimentary culture but socially impoverished. Naipaul senior, an odd-job man turned journalist and short-story writer, tried to raise himself a little by writing, only to look in the mirror one morning and fail to see his face reflected there He had merged back into the anonymous masses and suffered a mental breakdown.

Along with the emigre, the lower middle class occupies an honorable niche among the architects of English literature. It was from this Janus-faced social stratum ("contradiction incarnate," Marx called it) that the major realist novel of the nineteenth century was produced. The Bronte sisters were the children of a poor Anglican parson; George Eliot was the daughter of a provincial faun bailiff; Charles Dickens was the son of an impecunious civil-service clerk; Thomas Hardy's father was a small-time West Country builder. Squeezed precariously between the social establishment and the impoverished plebs, this group lived out the conflict between aspiration and frustration, individual ambition and communal loyalty, which also marks the work of so many colonial authors.

If the emigre is literally foreign, the lower middle class are internal migrants. They are inside and outside conventional society at the same time, peevish, resentful, and pathologically insecure, yet powered by a formidable drive for cultivation and respectability. The impulse to belong, and the urge to break away, fight it out in the Brontes as they do in Naipaul's Mr. Biswas, a portrait of his self-divided father. The colonial writer's talent, which allows him to portray his own people, is also what cuts him adrift from them. To write about your people is already to write your way out of them. The act of portraying from the inside is also inescapably one of alienation; in possessing yourself in the act of authorship, you come to dispossess yourself of your place.

Childhood for most of us is a time when one has no idea what on earth is going on, but for the young Naipaul this state of ignorance was painfully compounded. His own experience was profoundly strange to him, as though the usual human faculties for orienting and identifying had simply crumbled. Not knowing others, in a fractured, unstable society cobbled provisionally together and curt loose from history, he could know nothing of himself. Trinidad was a "borrowed culture," a belated society with "that feeling of having entered the cinema long after the film has started." Racism permeated the place like an invisible gas. The novels he devoured as a boy were an imported product, the fruit of an organized metropolitan knowledge that Naipaul lacked.

Bereft of this coveted knowledge, his early efforts at fiction were thrown back on pure impressions. He knew nothing of his own Hindu community except for what he learned from his father's stories, so that even experience close to hand had to be mediated through art. As for historical memory, that fizzled out around the time of his grandparents. The past, like the idea of India, was a dream. Within the official, "real-life" India of Nehru and Gandhi there was a more elusive, semi-fictional India from which his family obscurely stemmed. He hailed from a half-remembered subcontinent, and when he later visited the place it turned out to be not, as he had expected, the whole of which his childhood community was a fragment but a solitary, separate, derelict nation, just like life at home.

Later, in a repetition of Trinidad, the England he knew would be mainly Oxford and literary London. (He was an undergraduate at Oxford's University College, whose tradition of distinguished overseas visitors has since dwindled to encompass Chelsea Clinton.) The Oxford of his day could give him little help with writing: it was the 1950s, when Tennyson and Thackeray were considered by the English faculty rather too recent to be adequately assessed. But it was through writing that Naipaul would explore who he was, reclaiming in such works as The Middle Passage and Among the Believers the areas of darkness around him; it was by investigating other "half-made" societies that he would be able at last to get a grip on his own.

The Indians, Naipaul considers with his usual withering contempt, are. botched parodies of the English; but England was a fantasy as well, encountered as a child only in the pages of Dickens and a few other literary imports, on which he then modeled the real-life Trinidad around him. Eventually, in The Enigma of Arrival, he reverses the relation and speaks of projecting an African landscape onto a Wiltshire one, in order to write about Africa from the only spot where he has felt truly at home. Yet even the English rural landscape is portrayed here as one in decline, marked by that sense of decay, fragility, and impending chaos that inspires so deep-seated a fear in his novels.

The young Naipaul had to translate the English classics into his own Trinidadian terms in order to make them work--though he would later come to realize that writing is a kind of translation anyway, distilling and distorting the actual world into aesthetic shape. When he came to England in 1950, the nation that had previously figured only as a fantasy became one in another sense, full of English people pretending to be English. If the Indians and the Trinidadians were mimic men, the English were mimics of themselves, self-consciously performing their Englishness like a second-rate drawing-room comedy; men like Evelyn Waugh and the later Kingsley Anus really were irascible old reactionaries, but they also reveled in acting the part. At the same time, the social reality of England served to dispel the literary fantasy: the more Naipaul knew of English culture, the less he felt in possession of its literature. A country of the mind was forced to yield to the reality.

Knowledge was thus inseparable from loss, as it was in Naipaul' relationship to his small-time journalist father. It was his father's unpublished writings about Trinidadian street life that inspired Naipaul to begin writing himself, so that the son's text became an extension of the father's. What Naipaul did not know at the time, however, was that his father had suffered disgrace and humiliation: he was caught sacrificing a goat to ward off a curse placed upon him by souse farmers whose cavalier way with government regulations he had exposed in the press. To this extent, Naipaul's knowledge of him was mixed with a saving ignorance, a salutary blankness that lies somewhere at the origin of his art.

Literary Occasions, like most of Naipaul's writing about himself, is remarkable for its honest lucidity and stringent self-criticism. If he is hard on others, he is quite as ungenial about himself. He admits, for example, that his early narrators in novels such as Miguel Street are a good deal more streetwise than he ever was; that he did not feel competent as a reader until his mid-twenties; and that "the ambition to be a writer was for many years a kind of sham." He is not in the least given to posturing or self-dramatizing. The collection is the work of an artist who nevertheless exemplifies one of the minor catastrophes of the twentieth century: the fact that the conflicts and instabilities that issued in so much superb writing led also, all too often, to a harsh, unforgiving elitism. Great art, dreadful politics: it is the link between the two that needs to be noted.

Terry Eagleton is Professor of Cultural Theory and John Rylands Fellow at the University of Manchester. He is the author of more than thirty books, including Sweet Violence: The Idea of the Tragic.
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Author:Eagleton, Terry
Publication:Harper's Magazine
Date:Sep 1, 2003
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