V. S. Naipaul | Critical Essay by William H. Pritchard

This literature criticism consists of approximately 13 pages of analysis & critique of V. S. Naipaul.
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Critical Essay by William H. Pritchard

SOURCE: "Naipaul's Written World," in The Hudson Review, Vol. XLVII, No. 4, Winter, 1995, pp. 587-96.

In the following essay, Pritchard argues that Naipaul's "decline as a novelist" can be attributed to his "banishment" of irony and humor in his later works.

V. S. Naipaul's twenty-second book is an occasion for looking over his extraordinary career and considering how much it weighs and what parts of it weigh most. That he hasn't yet won the Nobel Prize is continuing matter for speculation and doubtless has to do with his outspoken airings of prejudices that are insufficiently liberal. Reviewing the new book's predecessor, The Enigma of Arrival (1987), Derek Walcott—a Nobel winner—both praised it as writing and deplored Naipaul's disdainful attitudes toward black people and the West Indian world. Even so, said Walcott, Trinidadians had large enough hearts to forgive him for choosing England as the place of authority and tradition from which other places were judged and found wanting. One has the sense, then, of Naipaul as a politically incorrect figure whose views on things political count more than does his art as a writer (though everybody says he "writes well"), to the extent that the art has not been properly examined and evaluated.

In particular one wants to ask about the sort of novelist we have on our hands. A Way in the World, like The Enigma of Arrival, insists on its title page that it is a novel. Yet by no stretch of my imagination can either book be called a novel in any but the loosest and most unhelpful sense. Randall Jarrell's witty definition of the genre as a prose work of some length that has something wrong with it, will hardly do to characterize A Way in the World. Unlike Enigma, which concentrated obsessively and minutely on the narrator's life in a Wiltshire cottage over a period of years, the new book has no unifying thread of time or place; nor is its nine-part scheme of biographical reminiscence, historical fable, and portraiture of imaginary-real figures, consistently "voiced" in such a way as to assure us we can trust the narrator. Sink or swim, is more like it, and a number of times I sank.

You could say that Naipaul began as a writer of novels and late in his career has become a writer of "novels." (The English edition of A Way in the World calls it a "sequence," which is safe enough.) In what to my taste was the most engaging section of this sequence, "Passenger: A Figure from the Thirties," Naipaul recounts his relationship with an English writer he calls Foster Morris, who encouraged Naipaul at the beginning of his career as a novelist. In 1937 Morris had written a book about Trinidad centering on a strike in the oilfields and on the leader of the strike, a preacher named Tubal Uriah Buzz Butler. In "Passenger," Naipaul (we scarcely need to call him "the narrator") praises Morris' book for the way it depicted Trinidad people "with the utmost seriousness," treating them without irony, as if they were English. But, adds Naipaul, well-intentioned as The Shadowed Livery was it was also wrong, since it suppressed "the sense of the absurd, the idea of comedy"—the "preserver," Naipaul calls it. His own earliest efforts at fiction, in which he attempted to use English settings and people encountered after he settled in London in 1956 were, he soon decided, misconceived, since they suppressed his comic inheritance. The comedy inherited was a double one, from his story-telling Hindu family and from the street life in Port of Spain. More than once he has described how his true direction became apparent to him one afternoon when, sitting in the offices of the BBC for whom he was an occasional worker, he wrote the opening paragraphs of the opening story in what would be Miguel Street (his third published book, though the first to be written):

Every morning when he got up Hat would sit on the banister of his back verandah and shout across, "What happening there, Bogart?"

Bogart would turn in his bed and mumble softly, so that no one heard, "What happening there, Hat?"

In Naipaul's "Prologue to an Autobiography" (in Finding the Center, 1984) he writes about this opening that

The first sentence was true, the second was invention. But together—to me, the writer—they had done something extraordinary. Though they had left out everything—the setting, the historical time, the racial and social complexities of the people of the street—they had suggested it all; they had created the world of the street. And together, as sentences, words, they had set up a rhythm, a speed, which dictated all that was to follow.

Of note in this portrait of the artist by himself, is Naipaul's confident assumption that the difference between truth and invention is perfectly clear, and that the account given here of his beginnings as a writer is obviously true, not invented.

Naipaul's emphasis on the pace and idiom of comedy, with its roots in local observation and its dependence on artfully combined sentences and words, surely characterizes with accuracy the feel of the stories in Miguel Street and—even more satisfying—his first two novels, The Mystic Masseur (1957) and The Suffrage of Elvira (1958). In The Mystic Masseur, Ganesh—the struggling masseur who turns himself into a famous writer and healer—observes a shop notice written by Leela, his bride-to-be, who is being recommended to Ganesh by her father, Ramlogan:

"Is Leela self who write that," Ramlogan said. "I didn't ask she to write it, mind you. She just sit down quiet quiet one morning after tea and write it off."

It read:

                       NOTICE:
 
        Notice, is. Hereby; provided: That, Seats!
     Are, Provided. For; Female: Shop, Assistants!
 
     Ganesh said, "Leela know a lot of punctuation marks."
 
     "That is it, sahib. All day the girl just sitting down and talking about these punctuation marks. She is like that, sahib."

Later, to the surprise of those around him, Ganesh writes his first book, titled A Hundred and One Questions and Answers on the Hindu Religion, which contains sticklers such as number 46, "Who is the greatest modern Hindu?" (Ans. Mahatma Gandhi) and 47, "Who is the second greatest modern Hindu?" (Ans. Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru) and 48, "Who is the third greatest modern Hindu?" (Ans. not revealed to us). Ramlogan is delighted: "Is the sort of book, sahib, they should give to children in school and make them learn it by heart."

The idiom is as memorable as the inventive comedy it conveys: Ganesh's aunt is known by him as "The Great Belcher" for reasons of her expressive dyspepsia; Ramlogan says that having to look after himself since he was five years old has given him "cha'acter and sensa values, sahib. That's what it gives me. Cha'acter and sensa values." In The Suffrage of Elvira, about a political campaign in one of Trinidad's first free elections, the tone is even broader and more farcical, with many fine scenes, one of which involves a dead chicken that someone lays squarely in the middle of Ramlogan's doorway, just after he has luxuriously rubbed himself with Canadian Healing Oil (the "Canadian" touch is especially good in this Caribbean venue). When one of the characters is told by his son that the son will no longer support his father's candidate in the election, the older man doesn't attempt to argue with him since "You is a big man. Your pee making froth." Many further examples of a living idiom could be adduced as proof of the way, in Naipaul's retrospective phrase about it, "the world of the street" has been created.

The "Passenger" section from Naipaul's new work throws interesting light on how he sees the relation between his first three "street" books and what is generally acknowledged to be his masterwork, A House for Mr. Biswas (1961), by any standards among the major novels of our century. Naipaul tells us that though his early way of writing had given him confidence and gotten him started, by 1960 or thereabouts he had begun to be bothered by its "jokeyness," a humor that seemed to lie "on the other side of hysteria," just as did the colonial society he had written about. He says—it must be in reference to Mr. Biswas, though he doesn't name it directly—that he was "absolutely secure in this new book" which was taking him much longer to finish than the previous ones. And although the six hundred pages of Biswas contain much comedy—especially in the verbal inventiveness of the protagonist's name-calling of his Tulsi in-laws—and much fiercely sardonic humor in Mr. Biswas' struggle with the world's stupidities and follies, the novel frequently takes on a deeper note. Mr. Biswas could be said to exist, like the comedy Naipaul had become adept at creating, on the other side of hysteria or anxiety, that "deeper root of comedy" that had become this novelist's subject. Biswas suffers a major nervous collapse during the book as well as countless smaller defeats and depressions; so when Naipaul provides him with a momentary vision of self-possession, of peace, the effect on a reader is strong and satisfying, as in this memory of morning in Port of Spain:

The newspaper, delivered free, still warm, the ink still wet, sprawled on the concrete steps down which the sun was moving. Dew lay on trees and roofs; the empty street, freshly swept and washed, was in cool shadow, and water ran clear in the gutters whose green bases had been scratched and striped by the sweepers' harsh brooms.

Or this moment, in his final dwelling place two weeks before he dies:

He thought of the house as his own, though for years it had been irretrievably mortgaged. And during these months of illness and despair, he was struck again and again by the wonder of being in his own house, the audacity of it; to walk in through his own front gate, to bar entry to whoever he wished, to close his doors and windows every night, to hear no noises except those of his family, to wander freely from room to room, and about his yard …

A House for Mr. Biswas is invariably called "Dickensian" by critics, as I suppose any big book teeming with characters (many of them caricatures), disdaining economy of effort and moving always toward expansion, determined to leave nothing out, could be so called. But except for the reflective gravity of some of the narrative in Great Expectations, Dickens, whose "jokeyness" is always cropping up, contains little of the sustained depths and glooms that lie not very far beneath Mohun Biswas' story.

Having published, at age twenty-nine, a novel containing as much life as did Mr. Biswas, what was Naipaul to do next? A possibility, frequently made use of by English novelists of this century, was to travel, then write up your travels: accordingly Naipaul went back to the Caribbean, then to India, and produced absorbing accounts of these places in The Middle Passage (1962) and An Area of Darkness (1964). But while in India he also wrote, one presumes fairly rapidly, the oddest and in some ways most delightful book of his career, Mr. Stone and the Knights' Companion, the one novel of his set wholly in England and with English characters. To those familiar with Naipaul's other fiction, both early and late, Mr. Stone reads like a ventriloquist's performance, as if Muriel Spark or Elizabeth Taylor were at the controls. The tone and irony of the novel is delicate and mischievous, with yearning and melancholy in it as well. It was if Naipaul were saying, if you think I'm merely a regionalist entertainer, let me show you what I can do as well or better than any contemporary English novelist. By the same token, it was something only to be done once.

Naipaul's decline as a novelist—or at least his metamorphosis into a very different, and to my eyes less appealing, one—began with the award-winning The Mimic Men (1967). His first novel in the first person, it is an example of what Henry James, speaking of that mode, called "the terrible fluidity of self-revelation." Whether we are meant to identify the narrator, one Ralph Singh, with Naipaul, or whether Singh is the object of authorial irony, is impossible to determine. What is damagingly evident is that comedy has been thoroughly laid aside in favor of Singh's largely toneless recitation of his career in London, his childhood in the Caribbean, his marriage and its dissolution, his decision to write a memoir. Instead of comedy, we have endless assertion and declaration (the book is only 250 pages long but feels much longer). Nothing is dramatized; the mode of presentation is as flat and uninflected as Singh's life seems to have been. Here for the first time we see Naipaul—as he characterized himself in a recent New Yorker profile—as a hater of "style" in prose: "I want the writer not to be there … In my writing there's no self-consciousness, there's no beauty." He says in the profile he is against "smoothness," against rhythm, against Santayana and Gibbon and the King James Bible ("Unbearable—unbearable"); he is against plot (Trollope would be all right if he weren't always plotting); he is in favor of Richard Jeffries and William Cobbett as admirable nineteenth-century writers, rather than Jane Austen and Henry James. Although these prejudices don't express themselves fully in his writing until the last two "novels," they begin to be felt in The Mimic Men and in the three political novels of the 1970s which followed.

In 1974, the year before the second of these books, Guerillas, was published (In a Free State appeared in 1971, A Bend in the River in 1979), Naipaul wrote an essay about Joseph Conrad in which, rather tortuously, he delineated his relation to that writer. As criticism, it is a curious performance: "An Outpost of Progress," an early Conrad story, is designated "the finest thing Conrad wrote," while "The Lagoon" (also an early story) provided Naipaul with something "strong and direct" that he was never again to find in Conrad. By contrast, Lord Jim, The Secret Agent, Under Western Eyes, and Victory are in their different ways unsatisfactory, and he couldn't finish Nostromo. Yet, and this is the burden of the essay, Naipaul eventually discovers that Conrad has been there before him: that Naipaul's desire to make a romantic career for himself as a writer was doomed to fail, since the world had changed:

The new politics, the curious reliance of men on institutions they were yet working to undermine, the simplicity of belief and the hideous simplicity of actions, the corruption of causes, half-made societies that seemed doomed to remain half-made: these were the things that began to preoccupy me.

This had been Conrad's experience, and Naipaul attempted to match it, he says, by losing "one's preconceptions of what the novel should do and, above all, to rid oneself of the subtle corruptions of the novel or comedy of manners." These words are extremely revealing: the corruption of causes, of half-made societies, of "politics," necessitates something different from the subtle corruptions of fiction. If "novel" equals "comedy of manners," then it can't relevantly deal with politics. Perhaps Naipaul believes that Conrad's austerity and lack of comedy were also to be emulated; yet The Secret Agent and Under Western Eyes are full of a sardonic humor directed at institutions and at "the hideous simplicity of actions." Indeed you might even say that in them Conrad came closest to writing the comedy of manners, and they are perhaps the novels of his that wear best.

What I find disturbing in Naipaul's political novels from the 1970s is a tonelessness at their center; an absence of narrative performance—of "style" if you will—that novels have not often tried to do without. Bent on displaying the corruption of causes in African and Caribbean "half-made societies," these books do so at the price of readerly pleasure. Even admirers of them might admit that they're not much fun to read; for Naipaul has deliberately moved beyond the "fun" that was so importantly a part of his pre-Mimic Men fiction. Taking the long view, we see that this was the way he had to go—to "develop": yet such development exacts its price. Mr. Biswas will be read when Guerillas is barely remembered, because the earlier book is art, the later one closer to a cautionary tale told in icy, noncommittal prose that doesn't admit any mixed feelings.

With The Enigma of Arrival and A Way in the World, Naipaul has ceased to write novels in favor of densely meditative prose excursions, linked together through something other than story ("Yes, oh, dear, yes, the novel tells a story," squeaked E. M. Forster). Or put it that the story has been internalized and historicized into something presumably deeper and more profound than a mere piece of fiction. In the New Yorker interview, Naipaul spoke of himself as a man who weighs his words, doesn't just say what comes into his head, and that therefore his books demand special treatment: "My paragraphs are very rich—they have to be read. Many things are happening in the paragraph. If you miss a paragraph—if you miss a page—it's hard to get back into it." He thinks that "twenty good pages" at a stretch is about as much as a careful reader of him can manage. The Enigma of Arrival contains a hundred or so rich pages ("The Journey") describing Naipaul's leaving Trinidad and early sojourn in England. But the rest of the book, centered on the manor-cottage life he lived in Wiltshire, is not so rich as it is labored. The assumption behind his remark about weighing words carefully is that a writer who does so will be neither vain nor prolix. Yet the minutiae of observation and speculation, the teasing out of the people and places that surround him—done without humor, largely without irony in Enigma—constitute an obstacle course that can be traversed only with much effort and frequent stops along the way. Naipaul's power and authority as a writer is such that to admit to failure on a reader's part, to lapse into inattention or boredom, makes for a guilty sense of inadequacy. Isn't there something really deep here that, if I were a better reader, I could discover?

On the basis of A Way in the World, I'd have to say—not necessarily. As with Enigma, the best parts of it are distinctly autobiographical: early memories ("A Smell of Fishglue") of administrative work in the Red House in Port of Spain; the aforementioned sequence with Foster Morris; and at least part of the section about the revolutionary Lebrun (a C. L. R. James-like figure). But much of the book is devoted to what Naipaul calls "unwritten stories," three of them, one of which is about Sir Walter Raleigh in his old age coming back to Trinidad, still occupied with the fading possibility of an El Dorado to be discovered up the Orinoco; another, even longer, story is about the career of the Venezuelan revolutionary, Francisco Miranda, a late eighteenth-century precursor of Simon Bolivar. By calling them unwritten stories, Naipaul, it seems to me, bids to disarm us by deconstructing the business of writing fiction (these are not "stories," you understand, not "written" in the usual sense), then taking the liberty to spin out at some length combinations of imaginative-historical embroidery. But their power to make us ask the crucial narrative question—what happened next?—is too often absent, with the effect that they feel, in the main, contrived and willed—interesting ideas that end up being overwritten rather than unwritten.

A Way in the World is a strange book, and though it has been called (along with Enigma) Proustian, there seems to me a huge difference between the densely psychological, often playful-painful exploration Proust gives his narrator, and what Naipaul does to the "I" in the presumably more autobiographical sections of the new work. A single instance will have to do to show what I mean and why it's a problem. In the section dealing with the revolutionary Lebrun ("On the Road"), Naipaul is invited to a dinner in London for the man at which West Indian food is served—a dish called "coo-coo" or "foo-foo" consisting of "a heavy glistening mound" of yams and green bananas and peppers. Repelled by it, Naipaul leaves it on his plate (no one noticed, he tells us). Eight pages later he is in New York City, again at dinner with friends of Lebrun with whom he has been put in touch. The host has promised him that gefilte fish will be served, a "special dish," which Naipaul says he's never had. When it appears this is what happens:

I didn't like the way it looked, and have no memory of it. The idea of something pounded to paste, then spiced or oiled, worked on by fingers, brought to mind something of hand lotions and other things. I became fearful of smelling it. I couldn't eat it. With the coo-coo or foo-foo in the Maida Vale flat I had been able to hide what I did to the things on my plate. That couldn't be done here; everyone knew that the gefilte fish had been specially prepared for Lebrun's friend from London.

Manners never frayed. Conversation revived. But the embarrassment that began in the dining room lasted until I was taken back to the Manhattan hotel.

This is as much as we are told. What is the meaning of it and why should it be presented as imaginatively significant? We know that Naipaul is an extremely fastidious man, a strict vegetarian, prey to disgust at certain kinds of culinary treats. And that he is as fastidious about what he writes (he weighs the words) as about what he eats. But for the life of me I can't see anything more to this passage than that gefilte fish didn't pass his scrutiny and embarrassment ensued. What does this have to do with Lebrun, or with the world about which Naipaul moves with such deliberate complication? By banishing irony and humor, the staple of comedy of manners and of a certain kind of novel, Naipaul has put himself out there on a limb with little besides his righteous, proud sense of himself as a man of integrity. Too often, in A Way in the World, that's all we're left with, and it feels flat, merely asserted. This is by way of saying that the new book (a strong bid for the Nobel?) is not the crown, but a curious outgrowth rather, of his distinguished writing life.

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