Predictably, VS Naipaul’s latest book has upset some early reviewers. Never shy of home truths, or gratuitous insults, the laureate’s essays are as provoking as ever. India, we are told, has ‘no autonomous intellectual life’, partly because it is ‘hard and materialist.’ Evidence of this can be found in the country’s degenerate book culture: “What [India] knows best about [its] writers and books is their advances and their prizes. There is little discussion about the substance of a book or its literary quality or the point of view of the writer.”
There is much worth arguing over in these lines, not least the question of why Naipaul bothered to publish them at all. Any discerning reader could have warned him that India would prove a disappointment in the end, that once its surface charms had lost their first gloss it would turn out little better than the Middle Passage dystopias he disowned so long ago. Indeed, literary ignorance has been on the march at least as far back as the date on which the Nobel committee chose Derek Walcott instead of the sage of Chaguanas, a slight which their belated recognition has only partly redeemed. After all, how could a man who squandered eight thousand lines of epic poetry on people whom Naipaul had patiently skewered throughout his own work be worth the committee’s notice? Even Stockholm, it appears, has lapses of intellectual autonomy.
But there are other problems too, one of them raised by Naipaul’s admission that despite a long friendship he had never read the work of the English novelist Anthony Powell. (When he did, honesty forced him to admit that it was amateurish, poorly plotted and, since it dwelt mainly on the English upper class which had been examined so often and so well, largely a wasted effort.) As for reading writers from his own part of the world, Naipaul’s record is, at best, mixed. At first blush, Walcott amazed him: “It seemed to me quite wonderful that … there had been, in what I had thought of as the barrenness of the islands, this talent among us, this eye, this sensitivity, this gift of language, ennobling many of the ordinary things we knew. … I thought I could understand how important Pushkin was to the Russians, doing for them what hadn’t been done before. I put the Walcott [poems] as high as that.” From this height, of course, everything went wrong in a very Naipaulian way. Walcott soon ran out of inspiration and was consumed by the littleness of his world. Inevitably, part of the problem was racial and political: “I began to understand … years later, that the “black” theme of these early poems, which I had brushed aside in 1955, would have been more important in 1949 both to the poet and the propagators of island “culture” than I knew; and that for those people the Walcott I had a feeling for perhaps hardly existed . . .”
Lest we misconstrue the general philistinism of the islands, Naipaul sets us straight: “It was something we with literary ambitions from these islands all had to face: small places with simple economies bred small people with simple destinies. And these islands were very small, infinitely smaller than Ibsen’s Norway. Their literary possibilities, like their economic possibilities, were as narrow as their human possibilities. Ibsen’s Norway, provincial as it was, had bankers, editors, scholars, high-reaching people. There was nothing of this human wealth in the islands. They didn’t give a fiction writer or a poet much to write about; they cramped and quickly exhausted a talent that in a larger and more varied space might have spread its wings and done unsuspected things.” Unsurprisingly, this infinitesimal smallness chokes Walcott’s genius. Later on, after being ‘rescued by the American universities’, he will become ‘the man who stayed behind and found beauty in the emptiness from which other writers had fled . . .”
Perhaps the best explanation of this line of thinking comes elsewhere in the book from Naipaul himself, when he tells us that, “… I very early became aware of different ways of seeing because I came to the metropolis from very far. Another reason may be that I don’t, properly speaking, have a past that is available to me, a past I can enter and consider; and I grieve for that lack.” Naipaul supplied this lack with travel, he rescued himself from the clutches of ‘island “culture”‘ by writing his way into the tradition of the English novel-with enviable grace and humour, it must be said. He presented the pathetic lives of these small people with simple destinies so powerfully that it has often become difficult to tell where his malevolence ends and our insecurities begin. Walcott chose a different, arguably more difficult way of seeing. He teased a past out of these provincial characters, housed them in something more than ruins of a colonial past. He considered them, and the cultures that had left them behind, synoptically, illuminating one literary tradition through his mastery of another. He created a past that all of us can enter and consider, one that allows us to reinterpret ourselves, and to come to terms with our legacies rather than simply escape them. For many West Indians that is an achievement that deserves more than a snide misreading from our other Nobel laureate.