The world is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it.
— V.S. Naipaul, A Bend In the River (1979)
Pardon me for breathing! And make no mistake — the harsh declaration that begins what might be Naipaul’s best novel is as characteristic of Naipaul himself as it is of the novel’s protagonist, who breaks from his Indian family to make his way as a merchant in equatorial Africa. Naipaul, who died at 85 last weekend, broke from his family, poor Indians whose forebears had migrated to Trinidad, and went to Oxford to make his way as a writer, a goal he set long before he began to understand what he wanted to write about.
It’s ironic that such a notoriously cold, un-ideological man came to think of novel-writing as an almost mystical process that opens the door to higher truths:
I write the artificial, self-conscious beginnings of many books; until finally some true impulse — the one I have been working toward — possesses me, and I sail away on my year’s labor. And that is mysterious still — that out of artifice one should touch and stir up what is deepest in one’s soul, one’s heart, one’s memory.
The best novelists “stir up what is deepest” in themselves by challenging their own beliefs and assumptions while exploring those of the characters in the settings they create. “The world is what it is” sounds oppressively realistic, even cynical, but Naipaul was too honest and smart, and too much an artist, to fully embrace a glibly cynical worldview.
He re-examined his assumptions with each new book — there were about 30, fiction and nonfiction — often while painting vivid portraits of chaotic post-colonial societies, and of characters trying to cope with the aftermath of great change. He laughed at the colonizers and the colonized — at their illusions and ignorance — but he cried for them, too. He was a humanist, despite himself.
Naipaul could be very funny, especially in his early novels, but I might not have wanted to hang with him. According to various sources, he was misogynistic, cruel to some of his intimates, prone to making bigoted remarks about Islam and the entire continent of Africa. He affected a lord-of-the-manor British accent, presumably to signal his great distance from his humble beginnings.
At the same time, I’m bummed out by the obits in the media that enumerated his faults without adequately describing the profundity of his themes, the subtlety of his characterizations or the power of his bluntly eloquent prose. It’s amazing how few pundits have what F. Scott Fitzgerald called “the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time.”
Naipaul thought of himself as an artist, not a personality, a point he stated clearly in his 2001 Nobel lecture:
…Everything of value about me is in my books. Whatever extra there is in me at any given moment isn’t fully formed. I am hardly aware of it; it awaits the next book. It will — with luck — come to me during the actual writing, and it will take me by surprise.
Too bad more people don’t read books. If they did, they’d have a lot less time for gossip.
Footnote: From the first chapter of my second favorite Naipaul novel, Guerrillas (1975):
An amber light fell on the brown vegetation of the hills. But in that vegetation, which to Jane when she had first arrived had only seemed part of the view, there was strangeness and danger: the wild disordered men, tramping along old paths, across gardens, between houses and through what remained of woodland, like aborigines recognizing only an ancestral landscape and insisting on some ancient right of way. Wild men in rags, with long, matted hair; wild men with unseeing red eyes. And bandits. Police cars patrolled these hillside suburbs. Sometimes at night and in the early morning there was the sound of gunfire. The newspapers, the radio, and the television spoke of guerrillas.