V.S. Naipaul died Saturday in London at 85. As someone who revered Naipaul for years and studied his writing closely, till I stopped just as abruptly 15 years ago, I want to offer a tribute.
I saw Naipaul once, at the 92d Street Y, and something he said will always shape my understanding of him. He took audience questions on cards, and read one aloud. “Why did you turn your back on Trinidad?” Naipaul cried out, “This is not a question, it is a form of abuse.” Then he explained in a few words that he left Trinidad because he needed a wider field for his imagination. He was speaking of a writer’s needs. And he found that field, first in the “rustleproof” paper in a BBC radio studio in England as a young man suffering nervous breakdowns far from home. Later by becoming the world’s novelist, for a few years in the 80s and 90s anyway, which was a tremendous achievement for someone from a traditional Indian background born in Trinidad.
Sentence to sentence his writing was beautiful. His phrasing was short, natural, and chiseled. That’s what I studied as much as anything, the style: I wanted to write like that. “All the little Naipaulians,” Derek Walcott once said, derisively. That’s because Naipaul’s gift for storytelling gave him a lot of power to interpret the world to the west. I dipped into a bunch of his books last night and reflected that he was in essence a travel writer bringing the south to the north. His most famous works were: VS Naipaul goes somewhere exotic/violent and comes back to London and NY to report on local manners.
He chronicled viciousness. I remember loving the story, “The Tramp at Piraeus”, about a boat trip from Athens to Cairo. Last night I reread it and saw what an ugly story it told so well, about international travelers humiliating an old man. In a Free State, the novella that helped make his name, was brilliant as a composition: a nightmarish trip through a country that is clearly Uganda under Amin, replete with a scene of Israelis soldiers training at a remote base. The book works as a travelogue. But it is extremely dyspeptic when it comes to its subjects, and marred, as much of Naipaul’s stories are, by sexual distaste (and misogynist portrayal of the woman character who has a sexual assignation). It’s revealing to me that the bit I remember the most from that book is the admonition not to turn off your key while your car is going down a mountain road to save gas– the steering wheel locks, you crash to your death. Even writing fiction, Naipaul was a travel writer.
I found myself laughing out loud last night when I read portions of The Suffrage of Elvira. Naipaul’s best books for me are the first few set in Trinidad. The Suffrage of Elvira, Miguel Street, The Mystic Masseur. They are delightful and cutting and knowing and clipped. By leaving Trinidad and becoming the world’s novelist, Naipaul paid a big literary price. He gave up a lot of joy.
Why did I turn my back on Naipaul? Naipaul’s father, a journalist, had written to him when he was in his late teens and going off to England: “Be faithful always to the estate of man” (as I recall the words). It is a beautiful line, and I think that Naipaul failed that trust, and did so in what ended up being a predictable fashion, finding civilization in the colonials and ignorance in the colonized. One of his Africa books is damaged by the line that an African getting into a car fills the car “with his smell.” A later book is damaged by the observation that someone wiping his nose deposits the snot under a seat. Naipaul’s ideas about cleanliness, which seemed to have a Brahmin origin, gave his work the arrogance and racism that offended so many, including me in the end. I wish his misanthropy had been less discriminating. I got sick of reading his phrase “half-made men” to describe people suspended between tradition and modernity.
Still, I plan to reread more Naipaul in the days ahead. I will find Miguel Street and read a story or two, and revisit A House for Mr. Biswas and A Flag on the Island. I’ll look through The Middle Passage and “The Crocodiles of Yamoussoukro,” to cherish the reporting and the composition, and the supple revisions of history. And I’ll slip into the autobiographical books: A Way in the World, the family letters, and The Enigma of Arrival.
There was more human affection in Naipaul’s books about himself and his family. I will look for the pools of sympathy in a very unsympathetic man, and be thankful for his daring.