VS Naipaul: Master of English prose, controversial author

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Though his politics has been described as dreadful and his personal life controversial, VS Naipaul remains unmatched as a uniquely gifted and original writer, Viswanathan Selvaratnam writes.

The English literary world is bound to observe with both veneration and opprobrium the second death anniversary of Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul, who died in London on 11 August  2018.

Naipaul, a Nobel laureate in literature, was, apart from his literary ingenuity, known for his snobbery, elitism and provocative approach. He was an outrageous conjurer of controversy. He chose, in particular, to denigrate both women and coloured writers and disparage many Third World cultures. But Naipaul was impervious to controversy and said pointedly, “I remain completely indifferent to how people think of me.”

Born in 1932, Naipaul was the grandson of an Indian indentured ‘coolie’ in the colonial sugar-cane plantation economy of Trinidad, then one of the British Empire’s prized possessions. With the abolition of slavery in 1834 in the empire, the British replaced it with the indentured system to meet the insatiable demand for cheap labour legally.

The indentured system was popularly known in the empire as the ‘coolie’ trade and described by British historian Hugh Tinker as a “New System of Slavery”. Under the system, Indian ‘coolies’ from North and South India were recruited through deception and coercion and shipped to toil under inhuman conditions and meagre wages in the sugar, coffee, tea and rubber plantations throughout the imperial possessions including British Malaya.

Naipaul’s father Seepersad Naipaul, despite his precarious socioeconomic and educational background, rose to become an accomplished journalist and imbibed a passion for writing and reading the work of eminent writers. The father’s love for writing was ingrained in his son. Naipaul says of his father: “He made the vocation of the writer seem the noblest in the world; and I decided to be the noble thing.”

Academic brilliance won Naipaul a scholarship to Oxford University in 1950 to study language and literature “to allow writing to come to me”. In England, he found himself trapped in the very belly of colonialism and racism he was bent on escaping from his native colonial Trinidadian society.

Naipaul’s hatred for both colonialism and racism was well articulated in his article “Black Man’s Burden”: “though in 1834 Britain abolished slavery throughout her posessions but sixty years later, no country was more racially indoctrinated” than Britain. His sharp, sarcastic and scurrilous comments won him the lifelong label of “controversial”.

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In England, Naipaul felt alienated with a weary sense of rootlessness and loneliness. To him people in Oxford were odd, provincial and mean. This pushed him to work harder so he could better them. He wrote to his parents “I want to come top of my group” and “I have got to show these people that I can beat them in their own language”.

Upon graduating, Naipaul settled in London and pursued his ambitious vocation as a writer. This was despite the ambiguity of what he wanted to write about, and with scarcely a readership in sight. “It is mysterious that the ambition should have come first—the wish to be a writer, to have that distinction, that fame—and that this ambition should have come long before I could think of anything to write about.” Without writing, he observed, “everything will become insipid, reading would have no point, because a writer reads with a purpose.”

Writing was for Naipaul a prospect of romance, even escapism. “I was in a state of psychological destitution—having no money, besides—I went to London after leaving Oxford in 1954, to make my way as a writer.”

By a stroke of luck, Naipaul found a part-time job at the BBC’s Caribbean Service, which saved him from destitution. He began to build his life around his first ambitious vocation – writing. He published his first novel, The Mystic Masseur, in 1957, followed by The Suffrage of Elvirain in 1958, Miguel Street in 1959, and the semiautobiographical novel A House for Mr Biswas in 1961, which was a stunning success and won him universal fame. Time magazine hailed it as the best-known novel and masterpiece. 

It is a novel full of particularities that reflects Naipaul’s way of seeing and feeling “the passions and nerves of my early life”. “Of all my books, A House for Biswas is closest to me,” Naipaul said. “It is most personal, created out of what I saw and felt as a child.”

For Naipaul, novels and travelogues had to reflect originality of thought, the vividness of the physical, social relations and their contradictions, and descriptions of people and places and the vitality of their dialogue. “When men cannot observe, they don’t have ideas; they have obsessions.”

Through his passionate engagement in writing and publishing – over 30 books by the time of his death – he proved himself as one of the most accomplished authors of modern times. With a keen eye and a superb mastery of the English language, he transcended the deeply embedded endemic class and racial prejudices of British parochial literary society, becoming a major mainstream literary figure in the conservative and passionless English society of his time.

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Naipaul is cited as the master of postcolonial fiction, and his novels and travelogues travelled across English borders more easily than other British writers. Even his fiercest critics admired his technical mastery.

The Anglo-American literary critic, the late Christopher Hitchens, was struck by the sharpness of his eye and brain.

AL Wilson when reviewing Sir Vidia’s Shadow by Paul Theroux in the London Review of Books observed: “Naipaul has always had a magic-like quality, weaving a mystique both about himself and about the craft of writing.”

Reviewing Naipaul’s Magic Seeds, Tim Adam of The Guardian said the sentences “are full of all Naipaul’s exact and cumulative brilliance”.

Naipaul’s fellow Caribbean poet, playwright and Nobel laureate Derek Walcott hailed Naipaul as probably “our finest writer of the English sentence”.

Patrick French, in Naipaul’s official biography The World Is What It Is, recalled: “Naipaul rose up the ranks of wealth, fame and privilege to collect every available worldly honour, including the Knighthood and the Nobel Prize.”

Naipaul, the grandson of an Indian indentured coolie, had arrived – to be hailed and venerated as one of the most important British writers’ across the modern world. In 1971, he won the Booker Prize for his novel In a Free State.

In 2001, the Swedish Academy in its citation for the Nobel Prize in Literature praised Naipaul as “Conrad’s heir and a literary circumnavigator, only ever really at home in himself, in his inimitable voice”. It celebrated him as a writer, singularly unaffected by literary fashion, who had “united perceptive narrative and incorruptible scrutiny in works that compel us to see the presence of suppressed history”.

British society, shaped by a long colonial history, has now laid claim to Naipaul as its own English novelist, neglecting the antecedents of its own brutal “new system of slavery”. Although Naipaul cracked the impregnable vision of the superiority and security of the practised craft of Western bourgeois novelists, he was never at ease among the British literary elite.

Controversy wraps Naipaul because of his outrageous, provocative and acidic remarks on the post-colonial world, which incited anger and hatred from among some readers. His Indian contemporaries despised him for his snooty snobbishness, and one described him as a “thoroughly nasty human being”. Others in the Middle East and the Western world have castigated him as an insolent, curt and dismissive person.

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Naipaul himself said he was always happy to be provoked, and his dinner parties were often occasions for combat. “Creating tensions, insulting friends, family or whole communities left him in excellent spirits”, biographer Patrick French observed. These provoking traits are exemplified in his travelogues The Area of Darkness (1964), India the Wounded Civilisation (1977), India: A Million Mutinies Now (1990), Among the Believers (1981) and Beyond Belief (1997).

In all his non-fiction writings, Naipaul’s memory served him best. He practised the mental discipline of remembering in detail what someone had said to him.

The Area of Darkness, published in 1963, incited a spontaneous angry public outcry in India (I was then a student in Delhi University) and remains banned until today. In this travelogue, he wrote: “Indians defecate everywhere. They defecate, mostly, beside the railway track. But they defecate on the beaches; they defecate on the hills; they defecate on the river banks; they defecate on the streets; they never look for cover.”

These sentences drove Indians mad, while for Naipaul, his experience in his ancestral homeland, India, proved to be far from a homecoming, and he felt he had “no place in this static and self-deluded country”.

Naipaul claimed India’s Hindu nationalism, whether dangerous or not, is a necessary corrective to history and will remain so. For this ill-conceived and controversial judgement, Salman Rushdie labelled him a cheerleader for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). 

After Naipaul’s extensive travels in the Muslim world, he launched a critical attack on Islam and its culture in his two highly controversial travelogues, Among the Believers and Beyond Belief. As expected, harsh political criticisms were levelled against Naipaul and he was labelled a “reactionary” and “Hindu propagandist”.

For Naipaul, “a book is a book; it has to have its own logic”. He says people can never remember long descriptions; just one or two images and you have to choose them carefully.

Irrespective of the divergent and controversial characterisation of Naipaul’s personality and views, he remains unchallenged and unmatched, a uniquely talented and original writer. Though he is no more with us, his fiction and non-fiction writings will remain to inspire generations to come.

Viswanathan Selvaratnam, a third-generation Malaysian, previously taught at the University of Malaya and briefly at the National University of Singapore

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