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V.S. Naipaul: the writer as “last free man”

By Nicholas Laughlin

First published in The Routledge Companion to Anglophone Caribbean Literature, edited by Michael A. Bucknor and Alison Donnell (2011)

The act of writing, the nature of literature itself, and the role of the writer are consistent and major themes in the works of V.S. Naipaul. His earliest writing to have appeared in print, the family correspondence collected in Letters Between a Father and Son, is obsessively concerned with Naipaul’s ambition to become a writer. His recent book A Writer’s People is a series of critical essays ranging over topics from West Indian authors of the 1940s and 1950s to the autobiographical books of Gandhi and Nirad Chaudhuri. The critic Bruce King has noted that Naipaul’s books are “filled with characters who write, want to write or pretend to write”. And in the latter half of his career — beginning with the long essay “Prologue to an Autobiography” — Naipaul has repeatedly revisited his earlier writing, taking his own vocation and the development of his literary skill for his subject. The result is a subtle and complicated analysis of what he calls his “way of seeing”, of his own literary ethics and aesthetics.

“Prologue to an Autobiography” opens with a memoir of the composition of Naipaul’s first “publishable” book, Miguel Street, which he wrote in 1955 while working as a BBC freelancer in London, not long after leaving Oxford. He describes typing the first sentence of the first chapter, “without having any idea where I was going, and not perhaps intending to type to the end of the page”. That first sentence, he says, was the simple description of a childhood memory. “The second was invention. . . . And together, as sentences, words, they had set up a rhythm, a speed, which dictated all that was to follow”. As Naipaul explains it, with Miguel Street — written in just five or six weeks, after several painful abortive attempts to complete a novel — he discovered how to turn his confused and incompletely understood recollections of his childhood in Trinidad into a literary narrative, and thereby “give value to an experience which might otherwise evaporate away”. “Half a writer’s work . . . is the discovery of his subject. . . . Trying to make a beginning as a writer, I didn’t know where to focus”. But the sense of discovery, of breakthrough, was temporary: “to have written a book was not to be a writer. Looking for a new book, a new narrative, episodes, I found myself as uncertain, and as pretending to be a writer, as I had been before. . . . To be a writer . . . was to have the conviction that one could go on. I didn’t have that conviction”.

To explore that lack of conviction, and what Naipaul calls his original “blindness” to his subject, is the chief purpose of “Prologue to an Autobiography”, and in the decades since then he has returned to these matters in a number of short and long narratives, notably The Enigma of Arrival, the essays in Reading & Writing, and his Nobel lecture “Two Worlds”. In these texts, in subtly different ways and with subtly different emphases, he describes his childhood and the life of his immediate and extended family: a background “at once exceedingly simple and exceedingly confused”. This was a self-contained world of Hindu descendents of indentured Indian immigrants, anxious about cultural contamination from other elements of Trinidad’s multi-ethnic colonial society, surrounded by what Naipaul calls “areas of darkness”, or gaps in meaningful knowledge of the wider world.

Naipaul portrays his literary career as a quest for self-understanding: “I had to do the books I did because there were no books about those subjects to give me what I wanted. I had to clear up my world, elucidate it, for myself”. And “those subjects”, the ones that were so difficult to discern and comprehend, are the social and historical circumstances he was born into, in Trinidad in 1932. In “Prologue to an Autobiography”, he offers a concise summary:

. . . there was a migration from India to be considered, a migration within the British empire. There was my Hindu family, with its fading memories of India; there was India itself. And there was Trinidad, with its past of slavery, its mixed population, its racial antagonisms and its changing political life; once part of Venezuela and the Spanish empire, now English-speaking, with the American base and an open-air cinema. . . . And there was my own presence in England, writing. . . .

So step by step, book by book, though seeking each time only to write another book, I eased myself into knowledge. To write them 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.

“To write . . . was to learn,” but it also seems that, for Naipaul, to write is, in a sense, to be: “everything of value about me is in my books,” he says. “I am the sum of my books”. His literary vocation is existential, a powerful response to what he once called “the old fear of extinction . . . of being reduced to nothing”, and elsewhere “the fear of destitution in all its forms, the vision of the abyss”. The self he has created through and in his books is deliberately free of loyalties to anything but the act of writing itself. He has striven to achieve “a freedom from people, from entanglements, from rivalries, from competition. I have no enemies, no rivals, no masters; I fear no one,” he says; further, “one doesn’t have a side, doesn’t have a country, doesn’t have a community; one is entirely an individual”. This stance has put Naipaul in conflict with many other Caribbean writers, and indeed with many Caribbean readers.

The investigation and definition of cultural and national identity is a prevailing theme in Caribbean literature, but Naipaul has consistently rejected being categorised as West Indian or Caribbean. “‘West Indian’ is a political word,” he said in 1981. “It’s all the things I reject”. He has even gone so far as to leave a publisher after being described in a catalogue as Caribbean. Other Caribbean writers have argued about questions of responsibility, language, authenticity — about how to be a Caribbean writer. Naipaul has remained aloof from these debates. He has mocked “the West Indian with his search for identity,” suggesting that “what might have been a genuine stumbling in the early stages is now regarded as a necessary posture”. And after the announcement of his Nobel Prize for Literature in October 2001, Naipaul infamously issued a press statement declaring: “It is a great tribute to both England, my home, and to India, the home of my ancestors, and to the dedication and support of my agent”. The omission of Trinidad, the country of his birth, seemed pointed.

This refusal of a Caribbean identity, of Caribbean loyalties, may have begun early in Naipaul’s career as an attempt to evade what seemed a restrictive label. “It isn’t easy for the exotic writer to get his work accepted as being more than something exotic, something to be judged on its merits,” he wrote in 1958. But if it was once a gesture of self-defense, it has evolved over his career into a philosophical stance. It may be that, as the critic Helen Hayward puts it, “his tendency to dwell on an absence of affiliations may better be understood in relation to the circumstances of his development and education”. Naipaul himself has often written that, as a young aspiring writer, he felt there was no scope for his ambition in Trinidad, no intellectual tradition, no “organised or solid literary or cultural life”. He has said: “I didn’t even really belong in the exotic world I was born into and felt I had to write about”.

Michael Gorra insightfully proposes that Naipaul’s disdain for the notion of a Caribbean identity, and for many aspects of Caribbean culture, may be an oblique response to the celebration of creole hybridity that has dominated Caribbean cultural discourse in the Independence and post-Independence era. Derek Walcott openly celebrates his mixed heritage — the “gathering of broken pieces”, as he puts it in The Antilles: Fragments of Epic Memory. Kamau Brathwaite outlines a poetics of creolisation aimed at achieving a Caribbean cultural unity (for example, in Contradictory Omens). But Naipaul, born into an ethnic minority anxious about cultural violation, is suspicious of the notion and the rhetoric of hybridity, even as he recognises the mixing of cultures as a key characteristic of his age.

His assertions have not often sat well with other Caribbean writers. George Lamming famously suggested that Naipaul’s earlier books “can’t move beyond a castrated satire”, that he is “striving like mad to prove himself through promotion to the peaks of a ‘superior’ culture”. Caryl Phillips has criticised what he calls Naipaul’s “undisguised contempt for the people of the Third World”, and his “whining” about the difficulties of his voyage to literary maturity: “we are . . . to understand that he was miserably burdened by the unfortunate accident of the place and the date of his birth”. Walcott’s antagonistic relationship with “V.S. Nightfall” goes back to their first meeting in the 1960s. Reviewing The Enigma of Arrival in 1987, Walcott decried Naipaul’s “virulent contempt towards the island of his origin”, but concluded:

Despite his horror of being claimed, we West Indians are proud of Naipaul, and that is his enigmatic fate as well, that he should be so cherished by those he despises.

It is fair to say that most Caribbean critics who have written about Naipaul have expressed discomfort at best, repugnance at worst. As long ago as 1970, a guide to the regional literature suggested that Naipaul’s books “have been a battleground for West Indian literary and social criticism”. Over the decades, the battle has only grown hotter. In one extreme and absurd incident, a member of the audience at an academic conference in Jamaica interrupted Naipaul and suggested he should be shot. It is difficult to think of another literary tradition so utterly at odds with its major prose writer as is Anglophone Caribbean literature with Naipaul.

On the face of it, there is good reason. The relatively good-humoured satire of his early fiction, set in Trinidad, matured in the 1960s into a sharper, more pessimistic, and sometimes mocking criticism of what Naipaul sees as the flaws and pretensions of post-Independence Caribbean societies — “half-made”, cynical, inhabited by “mimic men”. In the middle phase of his career, as he began travelling more widely, he extended his scrutiny to other post-colonial nations and peoples in Asia, Africa, and South America. Nowhere has he pulled his punches. He has been accused of exaggerating the squalor of India, of hostility to Islam, of racism. Indeed, his descriptions of black Caribbean people and black Africans seem to betray racial anxiety if not outright prejudice. When Walcott writes of “Naipaul’s repulsion towards Negroes”, images such as the “little turbulences of stink” created by the African waiter in In a Free State come to mind. In the 1970 essay “Power?”, bluntly issuing a challenge to the political and historical force of black liberation movements, he wrote: “black identity is a sentimental trap”.

Unsurprisingly, many left-leaning academics disapprove of these positions. “There is a long line of critics citing each other as proof that Naipaul is an offensive reactionary,” writes Bruce King. Edward Said called Naipaul “a witness for the Western prosecution”. With less nuance, the Trinidadian academic Selwyn Cudjoe ascribes to him a “solidarity with imperialism”, an “acceptance of the ideology and culture of the former colonizers”, an “assumption of their method of analysis and perceptions”. In a spirit of mischievous seriousness — or serious mischief — Naipaul has baited such critics with outrageous and supposedly off-the-cuff remarks (“Africa has no future”, etc.) delivered to journalists and interviewers.

Trinidadians might recognise such provocative assertions as a version of picong, which one dictionary defines as “teasing, ridicule, or insult, esp. in semi-formal or ritualized exchanges, e.g. between calypsonians”. His impish public conduct might be understood as Naipaul playing himself, a Trinidadian term for the projection of a carefully crafted public persona that at once masks and reveals (the Dictionary of the English/Creole of Trinidad and Tobago lists at least five other distinct expressions for this kind of behaviour). His biographer Patrick French quotes Lamming’s suggestion that Naipaul is “playing ole mas” — “masquerading or making trouble for his own entertainment, a Trinidadian trait.” French adds: “I noticed that when he was being rude or provocative in this way, Naipaul was full of glee”. In a revealing irony, Naipaul’s anti-Caribbean posturing can be read as a manifestation of a very Caribbean behaviour, a role-playing mode that is distinctly if not uniquely Trinidadian. But this apparent contradiction is entirely consonant with Naipaul’s own suggestion, in his books, that his literary stance is rooted in his Trinidadian background.

“Every kind of writing is the product of a specific historical and cultural vision,” Naipaul says. “The point is uncontentious”. Repeatedly, insistently, he has described the origins of his own vision in the “exceedingly simple and exceedingly confused” circumstances of his youth in Trinidad. The instability of his large extended family is fictionalised in A House for Mr. Biswas. Their cultural isolation, as Hindus, from the wider colonial society, but also their increasing distance from the social coherence of India itself, is explored in An Area of Darkness. Recognising his lack of meaningful knowledge about the history of Trinidad, Naipaul set himself to research and write The Loss of El Dorado. To explain his wide-ranging travels in search of firsthand knowledge, he refers to the “abstract, arbitrary” education of his youth, intensely focused on examinations and scholarships: a cramming of names and facts from Western literature and history divorced from their cultural context, so that Naipaul was “like a man trying to get to know a city from its street map alone”.
In “Prologue to an Autobiography” he portrays the writing of Miguel Street as his first step towards understanding these perplexities. In The Enigma of Arrival, he recounts his literary development over a longer arc, beginning at the moment of his departure from Trinidad in 1949 and ending, more than thirty-five years later, with the writing of the present book. It is a narrative of broadening knowledge and deepening awareness, with each book presented as a struggle and a breakthrough, and an advance in Naipaul’s comprehension of the self created by his confusing background. “The island had given me the world as a writer,” he acknowledges, “had given me the themes that in the second half of the twentieth century had become important”. Those themes include migration, dislocation, cultural miscegenation, and the re-making of the self that is demanded by these phenomena. “My subject was . . . the worlds I contained within myself”, he writes. And he names Trinidad as “the starting-point, the centre” — even if he immediately adds: “it could no longer hold me.”

So while Naipaul declines to claim Trinidadian-ness — or West Indian-ness, or Caribbean-ness — as an identifying label, he certainly acknowledges that his Trinidadian background gave him a distinct point of view, a “way of seeing” which he has sought to define and understand. And the idea of seeing, of perception, as the writer’s chief responsibility runs through his whole body of work. The phrases “way of seeing” and “way of looking” regularly recur (and the latter forms part of the subtitle of his recent book, A Writer’s People). This idea of vision incorporates both acute observation — recall Martin Amis’s memorable and painful description of Naipaul as “a peeled sensorium” — and hard-won comprehension. Naipaul has an eye for telling details that suggest the limits of someone’s perception, but he is also percipient of his own limits. Despite his reputation for arrogance, Naipaul’s travel narratives contain frequent descriptions of misconception or contretemps caused by his incomplete knowledge. The narrative thrust of The Enigma of Arrival is the gradual understanding by its narrator — Naipaul in all but name — that preconceptions and false expectations have clouded his vision of the world. Learning to see clearly is a gradual process, never complete, but also, for the writer, a moral imperative. Few writers subject themselves to similarly acute scrutiny.

What was the basis of the writer’s attitude? What other world did he know, what other experience did he bring to his way of looking? How could a writer write about this world, if it was the only world he knew?

Finally, if Naipaul’s subjects and themes require new ways of seeing, so do they require new literary forms suitable to their complexities. Naipaul’s prose style is admired for its rigour, its balance, its clarity. Walcott called him “our finest writer of the English sentence”, a compliment pregnant with ambiguities and possible ironies (who does the pronoun encompass, and does “English” refer to a language, a culture, or a literary tradition?). The edge and snap of Naipaul’s early prose flatten in the later books, in which he cultivates a deliberate plainness. (He even drew up a list of seven “Rules for Beginners” for the editorial staff of the Indian magazine Tehelka: “Do not write long sentences”, “Do not use big words”, “Avoid the abstract”, etc.). Often, his writing seems clearest and simplest when he tackles the most complexly nuanced subjects. “A prose so beautifully modulated carries something of the status of fact,” the critic Michael Gorra incisively remarks.

Well beyond his prose technique, Naipaul’s formal innovation has extended to a rethinking of genre that recalls Walter Benjamin’s aphorism: “all great works of literature establish a genre or dissolve one”. Naipaul argues that new subjects and new ways of seeing may demand new forms; specifically, that the novel, rooted in the social circumstances of nineteenth-century Europe, may be obsolete in the face of “the unaccommodating new reality” of the present. His argument has sometimes been distorted by journalists into a pronouncement of “the death of the novel”, but in his essay “The Writer and India” he makes his case with shrewd reference to the history of the form:

The metropolitan novel, so attractive, so apparently easy to imitate, comes with metropolitan assumptions about society: the availability of a wider learning, an idea of history, a concern with self-knowledge. Where those assumptions are wrong . . . I am not sure the novel can offer more than the externals of things.

Using the example of his first visit to India in 1962, he suggests that to write a novel based on his travels there, mounting “all that apparatus of invention”, “would have been falsifying precious experience. The value of the experience lay in its particularity”. So that parallel to his fiction, Naipaul has written a series of non-fiction books difficult to place in straightforward categories: juxtaposing history and reportage, social commentary and memoir, in what J.M. Coetzee once called an “expansion of the genres”. Despite the “vanity of the age (and of commercial promotion) that the novel continues to be literature’s final and highest expression”, Naipaul declines to rank his fiction and his non-fiction narratives in separate hierarchies of literary value:

As my world widened, beyond the immediate personal circumstances that bred fiction, and as my comprehension widened, the literary forms I practised flowed together and supported one another; and I couldn’t say that one form was higher than another.

Among his strangest and most original books are two that meticulously obscure the line dividing fiction from fact: The Enigma of Arrival and A Way in the World. The former was published as a “novel”, the latter as a “sequence”. Both include undisguised autobiographical material combined with events and characters either modified by imagination or entirely invented, all rendered in deceptively placid prose. They pose the reader an epistemological challenge, and have — as Bharati Mukherjee once noted of Naipaul’s earlier works — “a certain instability about them”.

The critic Robert Hamner has written: “in its dealing with Naipaul, criticism itself is also undergoing a kind of trial”. His books — and the facts of his biography — raise ultimately unanswerable questions about the relationship between man and writer, about the writer’s responsibility to his vocation and his society, and about what freedom means for a writer. Early in his career, in a semi-sarcastic book review, Naipaul suggested that “the writer . . . is the last free man”. With a moral and creative seriousness that some take for hauteur, he has devoted his life and his art to proving this so, even when “freedom” has meant alienation from the Caribbean literary tradition that still claims him. In a television interview, Naipaul once called In a Free State a book about “loss, fear, and independence”. As a summary of the trajectory of his career — from the anxiety of the beginning writer to the confidence of the master — the three adjectives are equally apt.

See the print version of this essay for full references.