Enigma of enigmas

By Jeremy Taylor

Literary Occasions: Essays, by V.S. Naipaul, ed. Pankaj Mishra
(Knopf, ISBN 0-375-41517-3, 206 pp)

The Enigma of V.S. Naipaul: Sources and Contexts,
by Helen Hayward
(Macmillan Caribbean, ISBN 0-333-95673-7, 222 pp)

V.S. Naipaul, 2nd edition, by Bruce King
(Palgrave Macmillan, ISBN 1-4039-0456-1, 230 pp)

V.S. Naipaul, by Fawzia Mustafa
(Cambridge University Press, ISBN 0-521-48359-X, 256 pp)

V.S. Naipaul

V.S. Naipaul. Photograph by Frederic Reglain, courtesy Alfred A. Knopf

“I am near the end of my work now,” V.S. Naipaul told the Nobel Academy when he received the prize for literature in 2001. Since then, much of the Naipaul backlist has made a welcome return to the bookshops. Some of the early novels and stories have reappeared in omnibus editions under new titles, and many of the shorter pieces, essays, and reviews, have also reappeared, first in The Writer and the World (published in 2002) and now in Literary Occasions — though many more still remain uncollected.

Literary Occasions is Naipaul’s twenty-seventh book, not counting the omnibus editions or the limited-edition Congo Diary. It contains eleven essays, six of which were previously collected in The Overcrowded Barracoon (1972), one of them (an important piece on Conrad) in an earlier version. It also contains Naipaul’s 2001 Nobel Lecture “Two Worlds”; the lectures “Reading and Writing”, published in book form in 2000; the “Prologue to an Autobiography” that was originally the first half of Finding the Centre (1984); and Naipaul’s forewords to A House for Mr Biswas (1983) and his father’s book The Adventures of Gurudeva (1975).

According to Pankraj Mishra, the editor of this new volume, all these pieces deal with “problems of self-definition: how writers incarnate or reject the deeper assumptions of the societies they belong to and write about; how their chosen literary form reflects or distorts their particular experiences of the world.” More bluntly, all these pieces are autobiographical: sometimes blatantly so, sometimes using other writers as mirrors in which to examine autobiographical issues. Literary Occasions is about how a writer learns to see, how he finds his voice, his form, and his subject. It is about how a solitary young boy in a bewildering extended family in colonial Trinidad felt lost in the world, and slowly learned, by writing about it, how he could fill in the “areas of darkness” that surrounded him — Trinidad, India, the Caribbean, England, North and South America, Africa, the Muslim world.

This story of his own self-discovery, matching his discovery of the world, has been an obsession with Naipaul for a long time. He has returned to it again and again — not only in the shorter pieces collected here, but in The Enigma of Arrival, A Way in the World, and elsewhere. He comes back to the same spot from different angles, like a dog trying to scratch an inaccessible itch. The story takes on the character of a myth. The boy wants to be a writer but has no model, no literary tradition, no “organised society” in which to locate himself. He feels desperately alone. His family situation is fantastically enclosed — “we inquired about nothing,” “we knew nothing of Muslims,” “we made no inquiries about India” — Trinidad outside the domestic walls was “the great unknown.” But once he starts writing, every book extends the previous ones, until he can “fill out [his] world picture” and become “more at ease with [him]self.”

Because there is so much overlapping, so much repetition, in these pieces, they do not sit together comfortably as a book. Naipaul’s editor offers the authorised explanation: “Each book is a new beginning, which dismantles what has gone before it. This explains the endlessly replayed drama of arrival, and what seems to be an obsession with writerly beginnings in Naipaul’s writings.” But the juxtaposition makes the book more appealing to the academic (all these different versions to compare and deconstruct!) than to the general reader.

The same can be said of the critical titles under review, just three of the dozens now clinging to Naipaul’s texts. Naipaul himself has not been encouraging about critics. In his essay on Indian autobiographies in Literary Occasions, he considers academic activity “self-perpetuating.” In “Jasmine” (1964), he warns: “I had no taste for scholarship . . . I sought continuously to relate literature to life . . . Now I discovered that the study of literature had been made scientific, that each writer had to be approached through the booby-traps of scholarship . . . delight cannot be taught and measured; scholarship can.” This would not get him far in contemporary Eng. Lit. courses, though it may ring a sympathetic bell among non-academic readers.

One major function of literary criticism — to help the reader get more from the text, and indeed to send the reader back to the text with renewed interest and enthusiasm — is at present deeply unfashionable. The text is to be regarded as a linguistic construct through which ideas are conveyed, and the critic’s job is to dismantle it and see how it has been put together, like a child dismantling a watch. As Helen Hayward explains in The Enigma of V.S. Naipaul, her purpose is to “examine the use Naipaul’s work makes of its raw materials, and the process of their elaboration into art.” Process, not product: this is quite different from relating “literature to life,” in the sense of existential adventure. Contemporary criticism further distances the general reader by using its own jargon-filled language and an apparatus of quasi-philosophical terms to underpin its desire to transform an essentially subjective process into something resembling a science.

All three titles offer an introduction to Naipaul’s work for the academic market, by scholars advancing their postcolonial credentials. Bruce King is by far the most readable. First issued in 1993, his study has been greatly expanded and updated, and covers Naipaul’s output up to Half a Life and the Nobel Prize. His introductory chapter is the most coherent explanation of how Naipaul’s art is made from his life and experience. King also makes sense of Naipaul’s obsession with his writerly beginnings and processes, demonstrating how since 1984 and Finding the Centre “the relation of the writer’s self to his work is now accepted as the answer to the problems of marginality, exile, and insecurity . . . The centre is now the creation and discovery of the self.” Thus the later books become a new stage in “learning to see”: looking back, revising, revisiting, correcting, updating. King is also good at giving a sense of the evolution of Naipaul’s attitudes and ideas, and even explaining his occasional outrageous outbursts (against, for example, liberals, frauds, radicals, and revolutionaries) and insulting language.

Hayward and Fawzia Mustafa offer more plodding analyses with less clarity. Hayward (of University College London) puts Naipaul’s autobiographical obsession down to “instability of identity,” and laboriously identifies links between key texts and biographical data. No blinding revelations are produced in the process; the book reads like a bright undergraduate’s thesis. Mustafa (Fordham University) published his study in 1995, and although it was “transferred to digital printing” in 2003, his publishers did not bother to update the text; the book thus loses much of its usefulness. Mustafa also takes the view that Naipaul is now revising and rewriting his earlier impressions: “the more he writes, the more it seems there is for him to return to.”

All three books have useful bibliographies, and Hayward and Mustafa also provide chronologies (the latter’s up to 1994). But there are some embarrassing textual errors which these scholars should have picked up — Hayward can’t decide whether it is “Prelude” or “Prologue to an Autobiography”, and misspells Guerrillas; King calls a character in A Way in the World, Leonard Side, “Leonard Slide”, and Yasin Abu Bakr, leader of Trinidad’s 1990 coup attempt, “Abu Bakar”. The dangers of speculation are illustrated by the fictional author Morris Foster, who appears in A Way in the World: King says he is “a composite of Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, and others,” while Hayward, equally categorical, declares he is “loosely based on Arthur Calder-Marshall.” King even peddles the discredited notion that Frantz Fanon stood for mindless revolutionary violence.

The academic infighting over Naipaul’s work is both entertaining and irritating (because, given the questions it poses, nobody can ever be right). King is the only one of the three critics to explain why Naipaul inspires such furious postcolonial warfare. Naipaul warned early on that independence must be hard and painful, and not just a replacement of a colonial elite by a local elite (one of the key points, as it happens, of Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth). He has since insisted on writing what he sees happening, no matter who this upsets. But postcolonial critics tend to read Naipaul’s independence and detachment as a betrayal of the cause, and depict him as a cheerleader for western neo-imperialism.

King sides with Naipaul on this; he is honest enough to admit that “postcolonial” often means “anti-western,” requiring literature to be read as politics. He is enraged by the late Edward Said’s criticisms of Naipaul’s attitudes (“idiotic and insulting,” etc). There is a good deal more to be said on this; King may be over-sympathetic, given Naipaul’s more elaborate provocations. Mustafa tends to the other side, being intermittently critical of Naipaul’s positions and his “compendium” method of assembling material; he is persuasive on Naipaul’s alternating “insider” and “outsider” approach to narrative, a matter which King does not address in defending him.

Only King’s study, however, left me with any interest in going back to the books themselves. Hayward and Mustafa I would resort to if (perish the thought) I was back at university and faced with doing a thesis on “Areas of Darkness: Alienation, Expatriation, Miscegenation, Migration, and Dislocation as Signifiers of the Absence of Nationalism in the Later Non-Fiction of V.S. Naipaul.” Or something like that.


The Caribbean Review of Books, May 2004

Jeremy Taylor was born in the UK, but has been based in Trinidad for thirty-two years. He has been a writer, editor, broadcaster, and publisher since 1975. Many of his essays and reviews are collected in Going to Ground. He is the former editor of Caribbean Beat.