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Sir Vidia and the prize. (Cover Story).

V. S. NAIPAUL HAS PUBLISHED NOVELS, short stories, autobiography, letters, (1) travel books, enquiries into history and politics, critical essays, personal essays, and innovative combinations of these forms. "My aim every time," he says in his Nobel Lecture, "was [to] do a book, to create something that would be easy and interesting to read." There is worldwide consensus that this has been achieved. It is generally acknowledged that the man writes very well.

Not everyone admires Naipaul, however. There are some formidable, well-known names among the readers who have expressed serious reservations. Baldly summarized, their main complaints are that much of Naipaul's work displays a lack of ordinary human sympathy, that with insufficient knowledge he has written overconfidently about various societies and cultures, and that his writing privileges Europe while tending to be contemptuous of Europe's colonial victims.

Caribbean admirers of Naipaul are said to overvalue his (merely) technical skills, and to be not concerned enough about the negative implications of his work. Many of the wounded know by heart, and are willing to recite, some of the famously hurtful passages--which are not always easily dismissed: "The island blacks will continue to be dependent on the books, films and goods of others; in this important way they will continue to be the half-made societies of a dependent people, the Third World's third world. They will forever consume; they will never create. They are without material resources; they will never develop the higher skills." (2)

In some of his interviews Naipaul has seemed to cultivate a cavalier offensiveness: the red dot on a Hindu woman's forehead means "My head is empty." (3) "Africa has no future." (4) We know he doesn't literally mean what he has said, but we may bristle at what sounds like gratuitous rudeness. Some of these moments may perhaps be seen, however, as delightfully Trinidadian--Naipaul giving rein to verbal playfulness, outrageously following where the straight-man questioner has led. Many years ago, he characterized the Trinidadian as "a quick, civilized person whose values are always human ones, whose standards are only those of wit and style." (5)

There was Caribbean consternation when, in an early response to news of the award, he was reported to have expressed gratitude to England (where he now lives) and India (the land of his ancestors) and failed to mention Trinidad, where he was born. Was this a pointed omission? Was Naipaul not a Caribbean writer? (6) On a Jamaican radio station I was asked, in effect, why Caribbean people should be pleased that the Nobel Prize had gone to this writer who has turned his back on us.

In important senses he hasn't, of course. With the ambition to be a writer, he felt the need to get out (as George Lamming put it in The Pleasures of Exile). (7) Naipaul, having won a Trinidad Scholarship which took him to Oxford, did not--like some of his contemporaries--return to live and work in the Caribbean, but he has visited from time to time; he has accepted Caribbean honours; (8) and in his writing Trinidad has continued to be a source of material or a point of reference. A Way in the World (1994) explores aspects of Trinidad history and the experience of a Trinidadian writer: "The article [by Lebrun] seemed to me a miraculous piece of writing. It stuck closely to what I had actually written, but was about so much more. Reading the article, I thought I understood why as a child I felt that history had been burnt away in the place where I born." (9) Whatever else it may be, The Enigma of Arrival (1987)--with its detailed perceptions of Wiltshire and English heritage, its meditation on empire, decay, and death--is a book about a Trinidadian writer: "So, from the starting point of Trinidad, my knowledge and self-knowledge grew. The street in Port of Spain where I had spent part of my childhood; a reconstruction of my `Indian' family life in Trinidad; a journey to Caribbean and South American colonies; a later journey to the special ancestral land of India. My curiosity spread in all directions. Every exploration, every book, added to my knowledge, qualified my earlier idea of myself and the world." (10)

Naipaul is said to have been first seriously considered for the Nobel Prize several years ago. It has been suggested that his critical perspectives on Islam--Among the Believers: An Islamic Journey (1981) and Beyond Belief: Islamic Excursions Among the Converted Peoples (1998)--may have tipped the scales in his favour at this particular time.

Appropriately, his Nobel Lecture has other things in mind. It centres on the mystery of the writer's gift, insists that writing is a process of discovery, and (once more with feeling) acknowledges his beginnings in Trinidad: "To give you this idea of my background, I have had to call on knowledge and ideas that came to me much later, principally from my writing." As a child he was surrounded by "areas of darkness"; when he became a writer, those areas of darkness became his subjects: "The land; the aborigines; the New World; the colony; the history; India; the Muslim world, to which I also felt myself related; Africa; and then England, where I was doing my writing." He never had a plan. He "followed no system." He "worked intuitively."

One consequence of this intuitive approach is an impatience with other people's categories. After the early novels, he deliberately blurs distinctions between "fiction" and "nonfiction." A House for Mr Biswas (1961) is now known to be largely autobiographical, but the novel does not foreground that circumstance. (Years later, in another context, Naipaul wrote: "An autobiography can distort; facts can be realigned. But fiction never lies: it reveals the writer totally.") (11) The Mimic Men (1967) takes the form of a fictional autobiography, and the narrator's opinions are frequently similar to views expressed by Naipaul in "nonfiction" articles. Naipaul's most recent book, Half a Life (2001), is a finely wrought conventional novel, which some readers see as partly a response to the Paul Theroux version of Naipaul's visit to East Africa. (12) In In a Free State (1971), a prologue and an epilogue, purporting to be extracts from the author's diary, introduce the writer in his own person as part of the "fictional" construct. The Enigma of Arrival (1987), designated "a novel in five sections," is read by many as mainly autobiography. In parts of A Way in the World (1994) the author seems to be presented as himself, though there are some invented names and details. Lebrun is a fictionalized portrait of C.L.R. James (and taken to be so by Farrukh Dhondy in his recent biography of James). (13) "In both The Enigma of Arrival and A Way in the World," writes Caryl Phillips, "Naipaul challenges the notion of form.... Novel? Sequence? Who cares." (14) And Naipaul says in Reading & Writing (2000): "For every kind of experience there is a proper form." (15) As an undergraduate at Oxford, he had been puzzled by "the very idea of fiction and the novel."
 A novel was something made up; that was almost its definition. At the same
 time it was expected to be true, to be drawn from life; so that part of the
 point of a novel came from half rejecting the fiction, or looking through
 it to a reality.

 Later, when I had begun to identify my material and had begun to be a
 writer, working more or less intuitively, this ambiguity ceased to worry
 me. In 1955, the year of this breakthrough, I was able to understand Evelyn
 Waugh's definition of fiction (in the dedication to Officers and Gentlemen,
 published that year) as "experience totally transformed"; I wouldn't have
 understood or believed the words the year before. (16)

He believes, as he says in the Nobel Lecture, that "all literary forms are equally valuable."

He has pointed to changes in his approach to travel and the writing of travel books: "It came to me ... when I set out to write my third book about India-twenty-six years after the first--that what was most important about a travel book were the people the writer travelled among. The people had to define themselves." There is a world of difference between The Middle Passage and his recent travel books: "I had trouble with the `I' of the travel writer; I thought that as traveller and narrator he was in unchallenged command and had to make big judgements." (17) Less assertive than he used to be, he listens, he records, he arranges.

Monitoring the play between the writing self and other worlds, we are admitted to the process of Naipaul's development. He cannot be everything we ask. He is the particular writer he is, with distinct (if often partial) acuteness and an extraordinary gift of style. As he says in the lecture: "At every stage I could only work within my knowledge and sensibility and talent and world-view." He has made the point before, in Finding the Centre: "To write was to learn. Beginning a book, I always felt I was in possession of all the facts about myself; at the end I was always surprised. The book before always turned out to have been written by a man with incomplete knowledge." (18) In Reading & Writing, similarly: "Each book took me to deeper understanding and deeper feeling, and that led to a different way of writing. Every book was a stage in a process of finding out; it couldn't be repeated." (19)

Naipaul is of course much more than a thoughtful writer absorbed in contemplation of his own slow growth. He is a fastidious craftsman, lucid, fluent, and subtle; a maker of intricate structures; a disturbing commentator on colonial legacies, including neocolonialism; a compelling delineator of power and its victims, freedom and its perils. In the end we read and admire Naipaul not because we approve his attitudes or his perceptions, but because each world he renders, the life or half a life he presents, is "experience totally transformed," made luminous by an almost invisible style.

(1) V. S. Naipaul, Between Father and Son: Family Letters, ed. Gillon Aitken, New York, Knopf, 2000. The editor is grateful to Naipaul "for his understandably disengaged approval of the project" (xi).

(2) V. S. Naipaul, The Overcrowded Barracoon, London, Andre Deutsch, 1972, p. 250.

(3) Quoted by Robert Hughes, Time, 22 October 2001, p. 45.

(4) Elizabeth Hardwick, "Meeting V. S. Naipaul," New York Times Book Review, 23 May 1979. Conversations with V. S. Naipaul, ed. Feroza Jussawalla, Jackson, University Press of Mississippi, 1997, p. 49.

(5) V. S. Naipaul, The Middle Passage, London, Deutsch, 1962, p. 77.

(6) Naipaul, offended by Diana Athill's critical response to the manuscript of Guerrillas, took it from Andre Deutsch, where she was his editor, and offered it to Secker & Warburg. Then he came back to Deutsch. Athill writes: "Vidia never said why he bolted from Secker's, but his agent told Andre that it was because when they announced Guerrillas in their catalogue they described him as `the West Indian novelist'." Diana Athill, Stet, New York, Grove, 2000, p. 232. See also Robert Hughes, loc. cit.: "Nothing disgusts him more than to be called a Caribbean writer."

(7) George Lamming, The Pleasures of Exile, London, Michael Joseph, 1960, p. 41.

(8) Such as a D.Litt. from the University of the West Indies (in 1975) and Trinidad's Trinity Cross (in 1990).

(9) V. S. Naipaul, A Way in the World, New York, Knopf, 1994, p. 114.

(10) V. S. Naipaul, The Enigma of Arrival, New York, Viking, 1987, p. 141.

(11) V. S. Naipaul, The Return of Eva Peron, New York, Knopf, 1980, p. 63.

(12) Paul Theroux, Sir Vidia's Shadow, Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1998, Part One.

(13) Farrukh Dhondy, C.L.R. James, London, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2001, pp. 136-43.

(14) Caryl Phillips, A New World Order, Secker & Warburg, 2001, pp. 199-200.

(15) V. S. Naipaul, Reading & Writing, New York, New York Review Books, 2000, p. 49.

(16) Ibid., pp. 22-23.

(17) Ibid., p. 30.

(18) V. S. Naipaul, Finding the Centre, London, Deutsch, 1984, p. 33.

(19) Naipaul, Reading & Writing, p. 27.

MERVYN MORRIS is Professor of Creative Writing & West Indian Literature at the University of the West Indies in Mona (Kingston), Jamaica, where he has served in various teaching and administrative capacities since 1970. He is the author of five books of poetry, including The Pond (1973), Shadowboxing (1979), and Examination Centre (1992), and of the volume "Is English We Speaking" and Other Essays (1999), and has edited such anthologies as Seven Jamaican Poets (1971), The Faber Book of Contemporary Caribbean Short Stories (1990), and Progressions: West Indian Literature in the 1970s (1990). In 2000 he served as a member of that year's Neustadt Prize jury, championing the candidacy of V. S. Naipaul.
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Author:Morris, Mervyn
Publication:World Literature Today
Article Type:Cover Story
Geographic Code:00WOR
Date:Mar 22, 2002
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