[Paleopsych] NYTBR: The Irascible Prophet: V. S. Naipaul at Home

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The Irascible Prophet: V. S. Naipaul at Home
New York Times Book Review, 5.8.7


    Two monuments rise like emblems from the green countryside of
    Wiltshire, England, not far from the secluded house of V. S. Naipaul:
    Stonehenge and Salisbury Cathedral. They are signposts in a landscape
    Naipaul has been traversing for more than half a century, one in which
    the impulses of culture, civilization and progress have always existed
    in close and uneasy proximity to the impulses of paganism, religion
    and disorder.

    A prophet of our world-historical moment, in his more than 25 works of
    fiction and nonfiction, Naipaul has examined the clash between belief
    and unbelief, the unraveling of the British Empire, the migrations of
    peoples. They are natural subjects for a writer who, as he has
    recorded in his many fully, semi- and quasi-autobiographical books,
    was born in Trinidad, where his grandfather had emigrated from India
    as an indentured servant. His father, a newspaper reporter and
    aspiring fiction writer, was the model for what is arguably Naipaul's
    finest novel, ''A House for Mr. Biswas'' (1961). At 18, Naipaul left
    Trinidad on a scholarship to University College, Oxford, and has lived
    in England ever since. Alfred Kazin once described him as ''a colonial
    brought up in English schools, on English ways and the pretended
    reasonableness of the English mind.''

    Knighted in 1990, Sir Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul is Britain's only
    living Nobel laureate in literature, having been [3]awarded the prize
    in October 2001, a season when many were just awakening to realities
    Naipaul had been writing about for more than 20 years. Also
    significant is that he had explored Islamic fundamentalism and other
    issues of global import not through fiction, but through nonfiction
    reportage. The novel's time was over, he had said. Others had made the
    claim before, but it resonated more deeply coming from a contemporary
    giant. What is more, Naipaul said, only nonfiction could capture the
    complexities of today's world. It was a profound observation. But did
    it speak to a larger cultural situation, or was it simply the personal
    judgment of one cantankerous writer, who in fact continued to publish
    a novel every few years even after declaring the form dead?

    Naipaul recently offered some thoughts on the matter, in an interview
    in the cozy sitting room of his cottage in Wiltshire. Photograph
    portraits were on the mantle. French novels lined one bookshelf. The
    sounds of the outside world could be heard: a lawnmower, the buzzing
    of a fighter jet from a nearby airbase. A compact man of 72, Naipaul
    has been ill in recent months, and said he is not working on a book at
    the moment. Although it was unseasonably hot on the splendid sunny
    afternoon of the longest day of the year, he wore a tweed jacket and
    corduroy pants. Unsmiling, he settled somewhat stiffly onto a
    straight-backed armchair and began to chart the trajectory of his

    ''What I felt was, if you spend your life just writing fiction, you
    are going to falsify your material,'' he said. ''And the fictional
    form was going to force you to do things with the material, to
    dramatize it in a certain way. I thought nonfiction gave one a chance
    to explore the world, the other world, the world that one didn't know
    fully.'' Naipaul's voice is rich and deep and mellowed by tobacco, and
    when he pronounced the word ''world,'' he savored it, drawing it out
    to almost three syllables. ''I thought if I didn't have this resource
    of nonfiction I would have dried up perhaps. I'd have come to the end
    of my material, and would have done what a writer like [4]Graham
    Greene did. You know, he took the Graham Greene figure to the Congo,
    took him to Argentina, took him to Haiti, for no rhyme or reason.''

    Naipaul has said he wrote the novel [5]''Half a Life'' (2001) only to
    fulfill a publisher's contract, and that [6]''Magic Seeds'' (2004)
    would be his last novel. (Over the years, he has often hinted at
    retirement, only to publish another book soon after.) Yet the fact
    that Naipaul has continued to write novels does not undercut his acute
    awareness of the form's limitations; indeed, it amplifies it. His is
    the lament of a writer who, through a life devoted to his craft, has
    discovered that the tools at his disposal are no longer adequate. ''If
    you write a novel alone you sit and you weave a little narrative. And
    it's O.K., but it's of no account,'' Naipaul said. ''If you're a
    romantic writer, you write novels about men and women falling in love,
    etc., give a little narrative here and there. But again, it's of no

    What is of account, in Naipaul's view, is the larger global political
    situation -- in particular, the clash between belief and unbelief in
    postcolonial societies. ''I became very interested in the Islamic
    question, and thought I would try to understand it from the roots, ask
    very simple questions and somehow make a narrative of that
    discovery,'' he said. To what extent, he wondered, had ''people who
    lock themselves away in belief . . . shut themselves away from the
    active busy world''? ''To what extent without knowing it'' were they
    ''parasitic on that world''? And why did they have ''no thinkers to
    point out to them where their thoughts and their passion had led
    them''? Far from simple, the questions brought a laserlike focus to a
    central paradox of today's situation: that some who have benefited
    from the blessings of the West now seek to destroy it.

    In November 2001 Naipaul told an audience of anxious New Yorkers still
    reeling from the attack on the World Trade Center that they were
    facing ''a war declared on you by people who passionately want one
    thing: a green card.'' What happened on Sept. 11 ''was too
    astonishing. It's one of its kind. It can't happen again,'' he said in
    our conversation. ''But in the end it has had no effect on the world.
    It has just been a spectacle, like a bank raid in a western film. They
    will be caught by the sheriff eventually.'' The bigger issue, he said,
    is that Western Europe, while built on tolerance, today lacks ''a
    strong cultural life,'' making it vulnerable to Islamicization. He
    even went so far as to say that Muslim women shouldn't wear
    headscarves in the West. ''If you decide to move to another country
    and to live within its laws you don't express your disregard for the
    essence of the culture,'' he said. ''It's a form of aggression.''

    No matter how uncomfortable or debatable, there is a painful
    prescience to Naipaul's observations on Islam and the West. That
    prescience was in evidence once again when, just two weeks after our
    meeting, bombers struck the London Underground and a city bus, killing
    more than 50 people. Naipaul was at home in Wiltshire that day, and
    professed no surprise that the attacks appeared to have been carried
    out by British citizens. ''We must stop fooling ourselves about what
    we are witnessing,'' he said in a telephone conversation a week after
    the July 7 attacks. The debate in Britain about British detainees held
    at Guantanamo Bay was evidence of the foolishness. ''People here talk
    about those people who were picked up by the Americans as 'lads,' 'our
    lads,' as though they were people playing cricket or marbles,''
    Naipaul said. ''It's glib, nonsensical talk from people who don't
    understand that holy war for Muslims is a religious war, and a
    religious war is something you never stop fighting.''

    These remarks, like so many of Naipaul's utterances over the years,
    seem calculated to provoke. In his interviews as in his life, Naipaul
    is famously irascible, difficult, contradictory, an ideological
    lightning rod. Yet in his writing, he is an artist on whom nothing is
    lost. Naipaul addressed this split in his Nobel acceptance speech, in
    which he seconded Proust's argument that ''a book is the product of a
    different self from the self we manifest in our habits, in our social
    life, in our vices.'' Naipaul's work is as subtle as his interviews
    are clamorous. In [7]''Among the Believers: An Islamic Journey,'' his
    1981 travelogue through the ironies and intricacies of non-Arab
    Islamic countries, and in its 1998 follow-up, [8]''Beyond Belief,''
    Naipaul listened seriously and empathetically to people in Iran,
    Pakistan, Indonesia and Malaysia: countries that were converted to
    Islam over the course of centuries and, in the late 70's, witnessed a
    rise in both power and Islamic fundamentalism. The books raise but
    don't necessarily answer deep and vexing questions: Is secularism a
    precondition of tolerance? Does one necessarily have to abandon one's
    individual cultural and religious identity to become part of the West?
    Why do people willingly choose lives that restrict their intellectual
    freedom? What becomes of modern societies founded on Islam, whose
    strictest aherents long for a return to the time of Muhammad?

    Like Salim, the protagonist of his classic novel [9]''A Bend in the
    River,'' who describes himself as ''a man without a side,'' Naipaul
    has cultivated political detachment. In his Nobel acceptance speech,
    he said: ''I have always moved by intuition alone. I have no system,
    literary or political. I have no guiding political idea.'' This is
    both true and incomplete. Naipaul's cold, unsparing look at the
    corruption and disarray of the postcolonial world, his disdain for
    Marxist liberation movements and his view that Islamic society leads
    to tyranny are implicitly political positions, and have made him the
    object of much political criticism. He has been sharply criticized by,
    among others, Derek Walcott, the Caribbean poet and Nobel laureate,
    and Chinua Achebe, the Nigerian novelist, who said ''although Naipaul
    was writing about Africa, he was not writing for Africans.'' The
    scholar and critic Edward Said, who died in 2003, called ''Beyond
    Belief'' ''an intellectual catastrophe.'' Naipaul, he added, thinks
    ''Islam is the worst disaster that ever happened to India, and the
    book reveals a pathology.''

    But what spares Naipaul's work from the ideology of critics who would
    dismiss him as anti-Muslim and admirers who would laud him for
    essentially the same thing is its unsentimental, often heartbreaking
    detail. In ''Among the Believers,'' Naipaul speaks with Mr. Jaffrey, a
    newspaper journalist and British-Indian-educated Shiite in Tehran who
    supported Khomeini as a way of bringing about the Islamic dream of a
    ''society of believers.'' Mr. Jaffrey ate a plate of fried eggs as he
    spoke. In ''Beyond Belief,'' Naipaul revisits one of the journalist's
    colleagues, who also relishes his lunch. Ideology is abstract; fried
    eggs are not. Naipaul's nonfiction has the force, the almost
    unbearable density of detail and the moral vision of great fiction. It
    comes as no surprise that Dickens and Tolstoy are his heroes. For all
    Naipaul's talk about the limitations of the novel, the power of his
    work is ultimately rooted in a novelist's preternatural attentiveness
    to individual human lives and triumphs, to the daily things we do that
    make us who we are, and are the key to our survival.

    A breakthrough in Naipaul's own understanding of himself as a writer
    and his turning away from the novel toward nonfiction came in a
    remarkable essay he wrote on Joseph Conrad. First published in The New
    York Review of Books in 1974, it appears in his 2003 collection,
    [10]''Literary Occasions.'' It is not entirely surprising that Naipaul
    would turn to the work of the Polish émigré; both were raised in one
    world and willed themselves into becoming artists in another, England.
    ''I suppose that in my fantasy I had seen myself coming to England as
    to some purely literary region, where, untrammeled by the accidents of
    history or background, I could make a romantic career for myself as a
    writer,'' Naipaul wrote in that essay.

    ''It came to me that the great novelists wrote about highly organized
    societies,'' he wrote. ''I had no such society; I couldn't share the
    assumptions of the writers; I didn't see my world reflected in theirs.
    My colonial world was more mixed and secondhand, and more restricted.
    The time came when I began to ponder the mystery -- Conradian word --
    of my own background.'' Along the way, Naipaul kept coming up against
    Conrad. ''I found that Conrad -- 60 years before, in the time of a
    great peace -- had been everywhere before me,'' he wrote. ''Not as a
    man with a cause, but a man offering . . . a vision of the world's
    half-made societies as places which continuously made and unmade
    themselves, where there was no goal, and where always 'something
    inherent in the necessities of successful action . . . carried with it
    the moral degradation of the idea.' Dismal, but deeply felt: a kind of
    truth and half a consolation.''

    Yet in our conversation, although Naipaul said he thought Conrad was
    ''great'' because he ''wished to look very, very hard at the world,''
    he also insisted that Conrad ''had no influence on me.'' ''Actually, I
    think 'A Bend in the River' is much, much better than Conrad,'' he
    said. ''I think the best part of Conrad's 'Heart of Darkness' is the
    reportage part. The fictional part is excessive and feeble. And there
    is no reportage in my thing. I was looking and creating that world. I
    actually think the work I've done in that way is better than Conrad.''
    Naipaul also dismissed the idea there might be a direct link between
    his Conrad essay and subsequent works in which he explored some of the
    same places and themes. ''These things might appear like that. But
    that's only for a person on the outside,'' he said.

    A different picture emerges from Naipaul's bibliography. After the
    Conrad essay, Naipaul in fact followed Conrad's itinerary to the Congo
    -- the subject of his nonfiction essay on Mobutu, ''A New King for the
    Congo''(1975), and of ''A Bend in the River'' (1979); and to Aceh,
    Indonesia, for ''Among the Believers'' and ''Beyond Belief.'' Naipaul
    has also gone where Conrad went as a narrator, cultivating a kind of
    finely wrought ambiguity and moving toward reportage. ''To understand
    Conrad,'' as he wrote in his essay, ''it was necessary to begin to
    match his experience. It was also necessary to lose one's
    preconceptions of what the novel should do and, above all, to rid
    oneself of the subtle corruptions of the novel or comedy of manners.''

    In conversation, another dynamic becomes apparent, in which the more
    dismissive Naipaul is of a writer, the more likely it is that he has
    engaged deeply with that writer's work. Sitting a few feet away from a
    bookshelf of French novels, Naipaul called Proust ''tedious,''
    ''repetitive,'' ''self-indulgent,'' concerned only with a character's
    social status. ''What is missing in Proust is this idea of a moral
    center,'' he said. Naipaul also had little respect for Joyce's
    ''Ulysses'' -- ''the Irish book,'' he sniffily called it -- and other
    works ''that have to lean on borrowed stories.'' Lately, he has found
    Stendhal ''repetitive, tedious, infuriating,'' while ''the greatest
    disappointment was Flaubert.''

    All this points to another idea: Modernism is over. ''We are all
    overwhelmed by the idea of French 19th-century culture. Everybody
    wanted to go to Paris to paint or to write. And of course that's a
    dead idea these days,'' Naipaul said. ''We've changed. The world has
    changed. The world has grown bigger.'' Which brings us back to the
    limitations of the novel. The writer must leave the sitting room and
    travel abroad into the active, busy world. It is the tragic vision
    only a novelist can reach: that the world cannot be contained in the

    And yet, for all his laments, Naipaul is not invested in the notion
    that Western civilization is in decline. ''That's a romantic idea,''
    he said brusquely. ''A civilization which has taken over the world
    cannot be said to be dying. . . . It's a university idea. People cook
    it up at universities and do a lot of lectures about it. It has no
    substance.'' The ''philosophical diffidence'' of the West, he
    maintains, will prevail over the ''philosophical shriek'' of those who
    intend to destroy it. Naipaul formulated those terms in a lecture he
    delivered in 1992 at the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think
    tank in New York. (Called ''Our Universal Civilization,'' it appears
    in his 2002 essay collection, [11]''The Writer and the World.'') In
    it, he cites a remarkable passage from Conrad: ''A half-naked,
    betel-chewing pessimist stood upon the bank of the tropical river, on
    the edge of the still and immense forests; a man angry, powerless,
    empty-handed, with a cry of bitter discontent ready on his lips; a cry
    that, had it come out, would have rung through the virgin solitudes of
    the woods as true, as great, as profound, as any philosophical shriek
    that ever came from the depths of an easy chair to disturb the impure
    wilderness of chimneys and roofs.''

    As for evidence of the diffidence: ''I think it actually is all around
    us. It's all around us,'' Naipaul said. But where, exactly? ''There
    are millions and millions of people all around us,'' was all he would
    say. In [12]''India: A Million Mutinies Now'' (1990), his third
    nonfiction book about India, Naipaul celebrated the million
    manifestations of daily life, of lives undefeated by the chaos,
    disarray and poverty of the larger society. A Hindu by birth, though
    not observant, Naipaul finds India a place of great hope. It is, he
    says, the country where belief and unbelief coexist most peaceably.
    The economic development of India -- and China -- he said, will
    ''completely alter the world,'' and ''nothing that's happening in the
    Arab world has that capacity.'' Yet Naipaul called it ''a calamity''
    that, even with its billion people, ''there are no thinkers in India''
    today. India is also where he turns for a theory of history. ''The
    only theory is that everything is in a state of flux,'' he said. This
    is his own ''personal idea,'' he said, but one linked to a
    philosophical concept in Indian religion.

    ''I find it impossible to contain the history of Europe in my head.
    It's so much movement, so much movement,'' he said. ''Even when you go
    back to the Roman times there are these tribal groups pressing all the
    time, pressing and pressing and pressing,'' he continued, pushing his
    fists together for emphasis and fixing his gaze intently at the near
    distance. He has recently been reading the letters of Mary Wortley
    Montagu, an Englishwoman who traveled across the Ottoman Empire in the
    18th century. The chaos of history pressed in on the Wiltshire sitting
    room. ''You have this picture of the devastation the Turks had created
    in Hungary,'' he said. ''Who ever thought that world would have
    changed if you were living at that time? But it has changed. And what
    we're living in will of course change again.''

    Dismal, but deeply felt: a kind of truth and half a consolation.

    Rachel Donadio is a writer and editor at the Book Review.

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