Intimate Struggle: On V.S. Naipaul

V.S. Naipaul lacked love. He denied himself: he exposed his vicious personality to the public and damaged people who loved him. So it seemed half a plea for forgiveness when he yearned that his writing still be cherished.

Years after achieving literary success, Naipaul regretted that his early masterpiece, A House for Mr. Biswas, had received only modest acclaim, and that the New York publisher Alfred A. Knopf had taken so long to notice his talent. After he was awarded the Nobel Prize, in 2001, he remarked that the prize was of little use, having come so late.

As he made these complaints, Naipaul displayed to the world his cruelty and bitterness. It meant that any admiration for his writing had to have a purity — to be for the writing alone, separate from the man. He gave interviews about seeing prostitutes throughout his married life. He justified an affair with Margaret Gooding — whom he beat and bruised — as providing him with a carnal pleasure absent in his marriage. He depended on his wife, Patricia Hale, to nourish his self belief even as he humiliated her, publicizing his infidelities while she battled cancer. He dismissed writing by women as sentimental. He derided former colonies like Trinidad (his childhood home) and India (his ancestral homeland) as stunted and wounded cultures.

Just as Naipaul exposed the societies he wrote about, he did not hide his own flaws. He opened his archives and letters to his biographer, Patrick French, revealing a pattern of physical violence and abuse targeting those closest to him. It is this unsavory Naipaul that has dominated obituaries after his passing this August. His writing seems drowned out by his persona as a ruthless artist who laid waste to people on his path to greatness.

And yet, as Naipaul desired, his true legacy to us may lie in his writing. Naipaul’s work offers us a picture of what it means to live with one’s flaws and darknesses and of the possibility of finding oneself amidst this intimate struggle. Reading his prose, one cannot but sense a man entirely committed to his writing, who is unafraid to speak about his need to be published and to be loved. Few literary figures have lived out the writer’s persona in such totality.

Naipaul was moved by stories such as that of Edgar Mittelholzer, a Guyanese writer of slave plantation potboilers who committed suicide. In A Writer’s People, Naipaul writes that years after Mittelholzer stopped publishing he received news that the author had immolated himself “like a Buddhist monk in Vietnam”. No reason was given for his suicide. But Naipaul was prompted to connect the author’s death with his work. “A writer lives principally for his writing,” he wrote. “Edgar, whatever might be said about his work, was a dedicated writer. And I wonder whether an idea at the back of his mind during those last days of pain and resolve wasn’t that he had got as far as he could with his writing.”

Many authors bury such darkness: some disappear from the world and only reluctantly give interviews; others construct slick personas, appearing to be above it all. Naipaul, on the contrary, grappled with it all and publicly. He played with his failings by offering them to his biographer to publish. And his writing stands in almost stark contrast to the confused torment that he unleashed upon others — for Naipaul’s prose is free of obligation and attachment. It is precise, beautiful and honest.

Naipaul lives on in our literature. One finds his comic Caribbean voice, for example, in Rahul Bhattacharya’s The Sly Company of People Who Care, his style of incisive commentary in Rana Dasgupta’s The Capital, and his standpoint as an authoritative social chronicler in books by Aatish Taseer. As I wrote Stringer, a book about my journey in Congo, it was Naipaul’s travel writing that felt most important. During the four years that I spent working on Stringer I read some 20 books by Naipaul. He remains one of the only authors whose body of work — not merely a few books — has held my attention.

I first heard of Naipaul when I arrived in America for university in 2001 and a student told me that a racist author had won that year’s Nobel Prize in Literature. Four years later I start to read him: a friend handed me Naipaul’s classic novel of Congo, A Bend in the River, while I was working in that country as a stringer for The Associated Press. From there I became gradually consumed by Naipaul’s work and curious about how this author came to craft such emotionally and intellectually charged prose. Both in moments of difficulty and elation in my writing I have instinctively turned to Naipaul for his lucid reflections, particularly in interviews, on the act of creation. Some of his descriptions of what it feels like to write I felt spoke directly to me and spurred me on — such as this one, which I read a decade ago in The Guardian: “It’s just a statement that one’s work has been snatched out of the darkness, grabbing it while you could do it. You’ve got to do it. You can’t just sit and wait for the beautiful idea to form and to be complete in your mind before writing. You’ve got to go out and meet it.”

I was writing in Rwanda in 2010 and struggling to place myself in Stringer, when two paragraphs in Naipaul’s essay, “The Crocodiles of Yamoussoukro,” showed me a way. They made me conscious of the banality of truth and how much narrative one could hang on a personal premise. The paragraphs came after a description of ritual feeding of crocodiles in the Ivory Coast. Naipaul wrote about why he had traveled to that country:

I went for simpler reasons. The world is too various; it can exist only in compartments in our minds. I wanted to be in West Africa, where I had never been; I wanted to be in a former French territory in Africa; and I wanted to be in an African country which, in the mess of black Africa, was generally held to be a political and economic success. African success, France in Africa—those were the glamorous ideas that took me out.

France in Africa was a private fantasy. It was based on my own love of the French language, a special schoolboy love, given me at Queen’s Royal College in colonial Trinidad by teachers, many of them black or partly black, who were themselves in love with the French language and an idea (hinted at, never stated) of an accepting, assimilating France. France in Africa: I imagined the language in the mouths of elegant Africans; I thought of tall, turbaned women, like those of Mali and the Congo; I thought of wine and tropical boulevards.

There was nothing remarkable about Naipaul’s reasons for travel. He had laid bare his prejudices about Africa, the notions that sparked his journey. I felt he was making the journey for himself. Reading those paragraphs, I remember thinking that this was how I had to write. Here was a man who had followed his instincts and turned his life and curiosity — his desire to live — into literature.

As I wrote Stringer, it was Naipaul’s travel writing that felt most important. During the four years that I spent working on Stringer I read some twenty books by Naipaul. He remains one of the only authors whose body of work — not merely a few books — has held my attention.

His writing seemed certain of its truth. It cut through the anxieties of being accepted and loved — Naipaul’s anxieties, but ones that I shared. His words seemed to come from a profound place within himself, a place which, as Naipaul wrote of the “African Africa” he saw in Yamoussoukro, “has always been in its own eyes complete, achieved, bursting with its own powers.”

As I wrote I felt myself become whole. In such a state one is no longer concerned with the world — the world owes one nothing. One writes for its own sake in a kind of bliss, aware that in one’s personal truth others will find their own. This was what Naipaul had done for me. And I felt I owed him nothing — not my sympathy or admiration or gratitude. It was for me the beauty in his prose.

In his books and essays that I read during those years, Naipaul relentlessly roamed the world, analyzing it and peering through cultural masks, holding up a mirror to his subjects — a mirror few wished for or liked. Perhaps Naipaul’s only choice then was also to bare himself; another approach might have compromised his art. Despair, shame and anguish lay everywhere on Naipaul’s pages. And one felt in Naipaul’s characters — violent people, people who felt inferior and powerful, who felt anger and shame — that he knew those feelings himself. One sensed that he wrote his best characters from this love: he knew them, and he was not afraid to show that he did, for he had — momentarily at least — forgiven them.

Most people I speak to have never heard of Naipaul, and of those few who have, most have not read him. Naipaul had himself surely sensed that his persona could one day eclipse his writing. In a 1974 essay about Joseph Conrad, he wrote: “More and more today, writers’ myths are about the writers themselves; the work has become less obtrusive.”

He desired fame though he knew the capricious ways in which fame comes to writers. “Writers’ myths can depend on accidents,” he wrote, referring to Conrad’s surge in popularity after Max Beerbohm parodied his story, “The Lagoon.” He told The New York Times that of the writers admired by the influential critic Georg Brandes at the start of the 20th century, “not one is remembered today. The deaths of writers are never announced. Something happens. They just go away.” Naipaul seemed to hope he might secure his own fame through film. He repeatedly referred to how his stories might become movies. He told Farrukh Dhondy in an interview that “If one adapted A House for Mr. Biswas for the screen for instance, the dialogue is all virtually there.” Naipaul’s narrator in A Way in the World repeatedly toys with the idea of writing a screenplay from his stories he tells us about El Dorado.

Naipaul’s obscurity relative to his literary achievements is perhaps a reflection of our society’s obsession with myths of perfection and morality. Art comes about in the process of confronting and understanding imperfections — to separate the art from the artist and to seek only beauty is to lose half the richness in the work. But we prefer to transact in simple images. Naipaul wrote that the modern novelist “no longer recognizes his interpretive function… so the world we inhabit, which is always new, goes by unexamined, made ordinary by the camera, unmeditated on; and there is no one to awaken the sense of true wonder. That is perhaps a fair definition of the novelist’s purpose, in all ages.”

If Naipaul is remembered for the ugliness of his persona, rather than his writing, it will be because the camera has become sufficient for us — and because we have become reluctant to interpret our flaws to reach more a complicated notion of our own beauty. This was Naipaul’s gift to us. And to the extent that this gift goes ignored, the love evident in Naipaul’s writing remains unrequited.

 

This piece first appeared in the Mekong Review.
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