The Naipaul Question

In V.S. Naipaul's writing on Conrad, we see who he truly is.

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In a typical brain-spasm of deep insight, James Wood once wrote that V.S. Naipaul “is a writer who has a conservative vision but radical eyesight.” This, in an essay for The New Yorker a few years ago. The World Is What It Is: The Authorized Biography of V. S. Naipaul by Patrick French had just come out. The literary world was agog. Naipaul, never shy to air controversial opinions or disreputable thoughts, had given his biographer total access to his private life. This created some surprises. One surprise was a revelation about Naipaul’s affair with an Argentinian woman in the early 1970s. Here’s how George Packer described the episode in his review of the biography for The New York Times:

Naipaul and Margaret began an affair that set free all of his desires and fantasies. When his editor and friend Diana Athill scolded him, he replied, “I am having carnal pleasure for the first time in my life, are you saying I must give it up?” Carnal pleasure meant violence — in fact it was inextricable from beating Margaret up, degrading her in bed, turning the great man’s penis into an object of worship. How do we know these things? Because Naipaul tells them to his authorized biographer. “I was very violent with her for two days with my hand; my hand began to hurt. . . . She didn’t mind it at all. She thought of it in terms of my passion for her. Her face was bad. She couldn’t appear really in public. My hand was swollen. I was utterly helpless. I have enormous sympathy for people who do strange things out of passion.”

Reading French’s biography, some praised Naipaul’s honesty. Others felt disgust. It has always been so with Naipaul. He splits opinions, drives a wedge into what might otherwise be polite literary conversations. Nearly everyone who has read Naipaul has strong feelings about him. No side ever fully wins the debate. The Naipaul Question has been a live one for more than forty years.

There is nearly unanimous agreement that Naipaul’s early novel A House for Mr. Biswas(1961) is a masterpiece. It is a sensitive and sympathetic portrayal of a man very like Naipaul’s own father, who sets himself the modest goal of owning his own house in Trinidad. But Naipaul’s later novels, as well as much of his travel writings, continue to provoke strong reactions. Naipaul has (in those writings and in interviews) said things like “Africans need to be kicked, that’s the only thing they understand,” and about Islam that “It has had a calamitous effect on converted peoples.” Naipaul once said of Derek Walcott that he is “a man whose talent had been all but strangled by his colonial setting.” Walcott later responded with a poem The Mongoose that ridicules Naipaul as a racist and buffoon. Still, the same Derek Walcott once described Naipaul as “our finest writer of the English sentence.”

The fact is, Naipaul provides powerful ammunition for all sides of the debate. Were Naipaul simply a monster, he (and his writing) would not be so compelling. Revealing himself to be a monster in one instance, he will use that very quality to his own advantage in the next. This protean quality makes Naipaul larger, as a character, a novelist, and a thinker, than any of the categories meant to encompass him. Those, for instance, who want to dismiss Naipaul for what Wood calls his “conservatism”, find themselves, more often than not, moved by his “radical eyesight.” And vice versa. Inevitably, to read Naipaul is to experience a rather exciting push/pull of attraction and repulsion. You can see this even in the short quote from Packer’s review of the French biography above. Naipaul describes extremely ugly behavior. Further, he seems to take narcissistic pleasure (the word ‘narcissism’ comes up often in discussions of Naipaul) in doing so. But he ends with a thought that is sensitive and vulnerable. “I was utterly helpless. I have enormous sympathy for people who do strange things out of passion.” By turning his sympathy around, he elicits it from us.

It is James Wood, again, who has analyzed this aspect of Naipaul most penetratingly. Wood came up with a lovely metaphor, snatching it from the Indian social theorist Ashis Nandy. Nandy describes Rudyard Kipling as having two voices: that of the saxophone and that of the oboe. As Wood describes the difference: “The first is the hard, militaristic, imperialist writer, and the second is the Kipling infused with Indianness, with admiration for the subcontinent’s cultures.” Wood carries this metaphor over to Naipaul. Instead of calling Naipaul a saxophone and an oboe, Wood calls him the Wounder and the Wounded. “The Wounder,” Wood wrote, “is by now well known — the source of fascinated hatred in the literary world and postcolonial academic studies.” Naipaul the Wounder is the man who beat Margaret and treats his wife like a servant, scolds everyone around him for their idiocy, has contempt for his fellow Trinidadians, and denigrates Muslims. Naipaul the Wounder is a snob and something of a bigot.

“The Wounded Naipaul,” continues Wood, “is the writer who returns obsessively to the struggle, shame, and impoverished fragility of his early life in Trinidad; to the unlikely journey he made from the colonial rim of the British Empire to its metropolitan center; and to the precariousness, as he sees it, of his long life in England — ‘a stranger here, with the nerves of the stranger’, as he puts it in The Enigma of Arrival (1987).”

It was an unlikely journey. Naipaul was born in Trinidad in 1932. His grandparents had been indentured servants, coming to Trinidad from India to work the sugar plantations. Through luck and hard work, Naipaul won a scholarship to study in England and ended up at Oxford. Eventually (and the route was circuitous), Naipaul started publishing novels. His success was slow and steady. In 1971, he won the Booker Prize for In a Free State. By the latter part of that decade, he was routinely being recognized as one of the most talented prose writers of his generation. In 2001, he won the Nobel Prize for Literature. He had indeed moved from the colonial rim to the metropolitan center. Along the way, Naipaul thought long and hard about his journey. He picked up a few tour guides as he went. The writer Joseph Conrad became a central touching point in Naipaul’s attempts to understand himself and his move from rim to center. Joseph Conrad was, after all, not really Joseph Conrad. He was Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski, a Pole born in a tiny village in what is now Ukraine. Just as circuitously as Naipaul, Conrad made his way to London via extensive travels over the world’s seven seas and eventually became, just like Naipaul, one of the most celebrated English-language novelists of his generation.

Naipaul wrote an essay in the early 1970s called “Conrad’s Darkness.” In it, he stated plainly:

Conrad’s value to me is that he is someone who sixty or seventy years ago meditated on my world, a world I recognize even today. I feel this about no other writer of the century. His achievement derives from the honesty which is part of his difficulty, that “scrupulous fidelity to the truth of my own sensations.”

Naipaul has slipped a version of this thought into many of his essays and stories over the years. There’s no question that Naipaul has always seen in Conrad a man of his own experiences, his own sensibility, his own intuitions about the root moral dilemmas created by the imperial project of extending Western Civilization to the rest of the world. Reading Conrad, Naipaul has, throughout his life, been constantly confronted with the writings of a man who, in Naipaul’s opinion, really gets it.

But what exactly does Conrad get? Naipaul says that Conrad “meditated on my world, a world I recognize even today.” By this he means the ‘wounded’ world that Wood described from the quote above — the world of “the struggle, shame, and impoverished fragility of his early life in Trinidad; to the unlikely journey he made from the colonial rim of the British Empire to its metropolitan center; and to the precariousness, as he sees it, of his long life in England.” Conrad experienced his own version of that journey. Conrad, therefore, understood what it meant to move through Naipaul’s world.

That’s the surface similarity. Beneath the surface, however, Naipaul finds himself continuously frustrated and confused by Conrad. In “Conrad’s Darkness,” Naipaul wrote, “I felt with Conrad I wasn’t getting the point. Stories, simple in themselves, always seemed at some stage to elude me.” Naipaul used Conrad’s short story “Karain” as an illustration of this elusiveness:

Karain, inspired by sudden sexual jealousy, kills the friend whose love quest he had promised to serve; and thereafter Karain is haunted by the ghost of the man he has killed. One day he meets a wise old man, to whom he confesses. The old man exorcises the ghost; and Karain, with the old man as his counselor, becomes a warrior and a conqueror, a ruler. The old man dies; the ghost of the murdered friend returns to haunt Karain. He is immediately lost; his power and splendor are nothing; he swims out to the white men’s ship and asks them, unbelievers from another world, for help. They give him a charm: a jubilee sixpence. The charm works; Karain becomes a man again.

At the end of the story, a character named Jackson and the unnamed narrator who were both witnesses to the events described in “Karain”, are wandering around London, reminiscing. Jackson turns to the narrator and asks him whether he thinks Karain really could have received a magical cure for the ghost that was pursuing him. The narrator is taken aback.

“My dear chap,” I cried, “you have been too long away from home. What a question to ask! Only look at all this.”

“All this” is the streets of London, so noisy, so big, so real. The narrator implies the obvious: no magic here. And the pragmatic world of London will always defeat the magical world to be found out in the villages and tribal places beyond its borders. Jackson replies to the narrator that he sees the streets of London and acknowledges their power and reality. But he is still not convinced that London is more real than the world of Karain.

The story ends with these sentences, spoken by Jackson:

I see it. It is there; it pants, it runs, it rolls; it is strong and alive; it would smash you if you didn’t look out; but I’ll be hanged if it is yet as real to me as the other thing.

As Naipaul saw it, “Karain” is basically a story about superstition. But Naipaul also knew that Conrad was after a more profound truth. This made Naipaul suspicious. After all, “Karain” is a rather straightforward story in terms of plot. Looking at the structure of it in his summary, Naipaul concluded that “we are asked to contemplate the juxtaposition of two cultures, one open and without belief, one closed and ruled by magic; one, ‘on the edge of outer darkness’, exploring the world, one imprisoned in a small part of it.” Why then, wonders Naipaul, does the story end with a reflection on the illusionary character of the streets of London? He writes, “So, romantically and somewhat puzzlingly, the story ends.”

Essentially, Naipaul could not believe that Conrad would end a story with the suggestion that Karain’s world was just as real, if not more real, than London. Naipaul knew that Conrad had actually experienced the places, like Naipaul’s home island of Trinidad, where magic and superstition still held sway (not to mention poverty and degradation). Naipaul was convinced that Conrad offered up a true picture of what it was like to visit the villages and cities beyond the borders of Western Civilization. But inconceivably to Naipaul, Conrad wrote a story that seemed to suggest that the murky truth to be found “out there” was preferable, deeper even, than the clarity to be found at the metropolitan center.

Naipaul was so confused by this aspect of Conrad’s writing that he often willfully misread passages in Conrad in order to draw the opposite conclusion. In an essay written almost twenty years after “Conrad’s Darkness,” (“Postscript: Our Universal Civilization”) Naipaul returned to “Karain.” Briefly glossing the story, he wrote, “Conrad didn’t treat the story as a joke; he loaded it with philosophical implications for both sides, and I feel now that he saw truly.” What Naipaul claimed that Conrad saw truly is that Western Civilization offers all humanity a net benefit, although it has its costs. Western Civilization provides not only simple charms, but also more difficult gifts, like “ambition, endeavor, individuality.” The stories of the characters in “Karain” therefore contain a “tribute — unacknowledged, but all the more profound — to the universal civilization.”

This, of course, is a concise statement of Naipaul’s own views. But it has nothing to do with what Conrad was writing about. Naipaul is the writer from the margins who always wanted to be accepted into the center. The benefits of the center are obvious to Naipaul as they are, I suppose, to anyone. But for Naipaul, the benefits can be boiled down to a kind of metaphysical proposition. Clarity is better than murk. Any sensible human being will, in Naipaul’s eyes, seek to move from the murk to the clarity wherever possible. Naipaul’s gripe with Western Civilization, therefore, has nothing to do with its inherent faults and everything to do with the fact that Western Civilization refuses to dispense its gift of clarity more freely, generously, justly. Naipaul’s anger is the anger of a man who had to knock on the door for so long, and endure so many insults while he knocked. But Naipaul never questions, not even for a moment, that it is better to be inside than outside.

Conrad lurks at the edge of Naipaul’s mind because Conrad was a writer who experienced everything that Naipaul experienced, and then chose the murk over the clarity. Naipaul’s writing is a model of succinct, clear prose in which the deeper meaning resides between the lines. But Conrad believed, (and here is where he breaks decisively with Naipaul) that The Truth comes in trying, and failing, to utter mysteries at the cusp of human understanding.

The fact that Conrad could prefer the murk is baffling and upsetting to Naipaul. Naipaul’s reading of Conrad is therefore a sustained attempt to explain away and ignore this crucial metaphysical difference. Naipaul fully understands that if what Conrad suggested about the nature of truth is, actually, true, then the story of Western Civilization threatens to fall apart. So, he represses this aspect of Conrad.

In “Conrad’s Darkness” Naipaul returned to a passage of “Karain” that he had ignored in previous readings of the story. In the passage, Conrad wrote of the place where Karain lives. “It appeared to us as a land without memories, regrets, and hopes; a land where nothing could survive the coming of the night, and where each sunrise, like a dazzling act of special creation, was disconnected from the eve and the morrow.” Naipaul claimed that this passage captured his own feeling about his own land. He claimed that Conrad had shown a great sympathy in these words. It is a sympathy for “all men in these dark or remote places who, for whatever reason, are denied a clear vision of the world.” You can almost hear Naipaul crying out, “Let us people from the dark places of the world have access to a clear vision!” What Naipaul will never understand about Conrad is that, to Conrad, it is precisely in such marginal places that a person can get a clear vision of the world, which is, necessarily, a glimpse into the murkiness and mystery at the heart of the human condition, a thing that is harder to see on the streets of London than in the jungles of Trinidad.

From that which Naipaul refused to see in Conrad, we get a clearer vision of what Naipaul has been showing us, now, for more than half a century: the pain and the yearning that comes from being a man born into what he perceives to be the darkness and groping ever forward toward what he perceives to be the light. Whether Naipaul is correct in his civilizational assessment is beside the point. His is simply the moving testimony of one, particular wounding and wounded man. • 31 March 2015

Morgan Meis has a PhD in Philosophy and is a founding member of Flux Factory, an arts collective in New York. He has written for n+1, The Believer, Harper’s Magazine, and The Virginia Quarterly Review. He won the Whiting Award in 2013. Morgan is also an editor at 3 Quarks Daily, and a winner of a Creative Capital | Warhol Foundation Arts Writers grant. A book of Morgan’s selected essays can be found here. He can be reached at morganmeis@gmail.com.

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