I refer to the editorial captioned “A grouse for Mr Naipaul” (07.10.30). The fact is we no longer approach V S Naipaul in attendance of great insight into the ways of the world. We read him now only to observe the interplay of the persona he has crafted for himself with the characters that he moves around the chess board of his books. The tics, the sneer, the snide comments, the often very funny insults, the inexplicable bitterness….
It is this drama, the pilgrimage of this strange soul through a world in which he encounters the weird and the warped, that provides a sort of comedic interest. When Mr Naipaul turns his hand to the serious we see only the limitations of the character he has crafted for himself.
One would therefore enter his latest work ‘A writer’s people; ways of looking and feeling,’ with a certain reserve.
Your editorial presents Mr Naipaul as having peculiar difficulties with “looking and feeling.” Sanjay Subramanyan of the UCLA writing in the London Review of Books is particularly dismissive, portraying the writer as suffering from a sort of occasional cecity. Not quite purblind but visually and then cognitively impaired. And an insensitivity born of prejudice and his own social and cultural origins. All this has had a warping effect on his sensibilities.
Normally I would have rushed and bought the book. After reading Subramanyam I found the prospect of an immersion in the narrow Naipaulian world unpalatable.
Your editorial refers to Naipaul’s reading and consideration of Derek Walcott. “Condescension and faint praise” for the poet is how the reviewer describes Naipaul’s treatment. He adds “The black or “Negro” culture of the Caribbean is one for which Naipaul has no sympathy.”
All the more ungrateful since, as Dr. Eric Williams is supposed to have owed the idea for Capitalism and Slavery to CLR James, Naipaul may be said to have owed his career as a travel writer to Williams.
Let us consider what we would call the Williams Warrant. Prof. Gordon Rohlehr in a discussion of Naipaul almost ten years ago reminds us that Dr. Williams had ” brought Naipaul down to do an assessment of the Caribbean just before independence.” Williams, the historian, wanted a counter discourse to Proust and Trollope and Kingsley and the 19th centruy British historians and travel writers who had looked at us and found us backward. Williams wanted a different vision. Unhappily the instrument he had chosen, Naipual, could not see.
The writer devoured the British historians and found himself. Re-invented himself as an upper class and unpredictably eccentric Englishman. Not only like the popular English travel writers of the past, but as a literary type, as a living psycho-social category long known and tolerated by the English mostly on the grounds that “after all, they were upper class.”
Thus, Naipaul, taking the mimicry to his own lengths, has been known to have criticised the current Labour government for bringing the tone of the country down. The recurrent reference to his Brahmin origins, the pickiness about food, the horror at coarseness of skin and manners, the aristocratic recoil at the encounter with the uncouth in the third world….have become the attitudes we now expect of him. He had become, not Lafcadio Hearne who had a sympathetic view of Antillians, but the native avatar of a Trollope or Proust.
Subramanyam in effect accuses the writer of lacking the capacity for introspection. It is a defect that Naipaul has attributed to Indians as a whole.
It is an interesting turn of the wheel.
The reviewer then observes “Indians living outside of India have, it is well known, been rather racist when it comes to other people of colour, and the anti-black rhetoric that pervades Naipaul’s writings… is only symptomatic of a larger malaise that extends from East Africa to New Jersey.” The insecurities and antique reflexes that are at the root of this condition will, we expect, fade as de-acculturation takes hold. It is an interesting process to observe.
Travel writing is a genre in which the author often dominates among the dramatis personae of the piece. It often reveals the lack of depth or range that we have come to associate with Mr Naipaul.
Poetry is another category in which the sensibility of the author is felt and displayed. Walcott himself presents to the world a persona of his own crafting, the “shabeen” or Red Man as Dr. Gilkes would say. This shabeen born around the same time and into the same narrow colonial world as Naipaul, lives its own love affair with the civilisation of its West. The existential tension of its own hybridity. Each glorying as it is and in its own way in this mastery of Western culture to which our old elites were known to aspire. The way the Self, tensile and malleable, is re-shaped as part of the writer’s creative act, is a matter of study and comment.
Out of an impulse to generosity we say, “Leave them all alone. With all their warts, they have made their contribution.” Except that the persistence with which Mr Naipaul insults us, Caribbean blacks, Indian Indians and all non whites and non westerns, in the end, irritates. He has had neurotic episodes -nervous breakdowns- and one has, in an impulse to generosity to wish him a full recovery as he fades into the twilight of our history. But is he going gently into the good night. The latest screech from the author would suggest that Naipaul will be de-accesioned from the national consciousness, his perversities intact.
When, upon hearing the news of the attribution of the Nobel we wrote an essay in this newspaper placing Mr Naipaul in his historical and social context, we attracted the anger of many.
Subramanyam takes the same approach. He is concerned that the Naipaul Indian is a type reproduced in great quantity in the Indian diaspora. He points to the possible aetiology of the condition. It is in line with our own thinking on the matter. He can be read at lrb.co.uk. The ethnic activists should find instructive employment doing so.