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Authors: V.S. Naipaul

Literary Occasions

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Literary Occasions

“Fascinating …. Poignant …. He shows an almost scientific precocity at being an observer and historian of his family’s life …. A lean little guidebook to the making of a Nobel laureate.”


The Miami Herald

“[
Literary Occasions
] shed[s] light on Naipaul’s intellectual evolution and on the source of his social insight, his humor, and his gentle melancholy.”


The Boston Globe

“Splendid …. Affecting …. The perfect complement to Naipaul’s volume of travel and political essays,
The Writer and the World.


The Oregonian

“[A] gift to the reading and writing public ….
Literary Occasions
is … an ideal place to make one’s first acquaintance with Naipaul’s literary universe.”


Fort Worth Star-Telegram

“Deeply affecting …. Personally revealing …. Thoughtful clarity … characterizes all his prose.”


Richmond Times-Dispatch

“Fascinating …. Naipaul truly is a writer for the world.”


The Tennessean

“Nuanced, personal …. Naipaul’s prose is a perfect combination of lucidity, elegance and gloom.”


The Telegraph
(Calcutta, India)

“Naipaul’s essays play an important part in understanding this remarkable writer …. Those already familiar with his work will find their understanding greatly enhanced by these essays.”


The Star-Ledger
(Newark, NJ)

“Superbly written …. [Naipaul is] a gifted and articulate writer whose prose, comments, and analysis force readers to closely inspect their own ideas.”


Nashville City Paper

V. S. NAIPAUL

Literary Occasions

V. S. Naipaul was born in Trinidad in 1932. He went to England on a scholarship in 1950. After four years at Oxford he began to write, and since then he has followed no other profession. He is the author of more than twenty-five books of fiction and nonfiction and the recipient of numerous honors, including the Nobel Prize in 2001, the Booker Prize in 1971, and a knighthood for services to literature in 1990. He lives in Wiltshire, England.

ALSO BY V. S. NAIPAUL

NONFICTION

The Writer and the World: Essays
Between Father and Son: Family Letters
Beyond Belief: Islamic Excursions Among the Converted Peoples
India: A Million Mutinies Now
A Turn in the South
Finding the Center
Among the Believers
The Return of Eva Perón
(with
The Killings in Trinidad
)
India: A Wounded Civilization
The Overcrowded Barracoon
The Loss of El Dorado
An Area of Darkness
The Middle Passage

FICTION

Half a Life
A Way in the World
The Enigma of Arrival
A Bend in the River
Guerrillas
In a Free State
A Flag on the Island
*
The Mimic Men
Mr. Stone and the Knights Companion
*
A House for Mr. Biswas
The Suffrage of Elvira
*
Miguel Street
The Mystic Masseur

*
Published in an omnibus edition entitled
The Nightwatchman’s Occurrence Book

Introduction

IN 1836
, a few months before Pushkin died in a duel, the Russian review journal
Telescope
published the first letter in the collection that came to be known as
Philosophical Letters
by the Russian aristocrat and former army officer Pyotr Chaadaev. For some years, the letters, written originally in French, had been circulating secretly among the Westernised Russians in Moscow and St. Petersburg—among the rootless elite that Peter the Great had created in his attempt to make Russia more like Western Europe. But the publication of the first letter in Russian was, in the words of Alexander Herzen, who read it ecstatically while in exile, like “a shot going off in the dark night.” It was, later readers would say, the beginning of intellectual life in Russia.

Chaadaev denounced the cultural isolation and mediocrity of Russia; he denounced, too, the intellectual impotence of the Russian elite, of which he was himself a member. “Our memories” he wrote,

reach back no further than yesterday; we are, as it were, strangers to ourselves … That is but a natural consequence of a culture that consists entirely of imports and imitation … We absorb all our ideas ready-made, and therefore the indelible trace left in the mind by a progressive movement
of ideas, which gives it strength, does not shape our intellect … We are like children who have not been taught to think for themselves: when they become adults, they have nothing of their own—all their knowledge is on the surface of their being, their soul is not within them.

With these lines, Chaadaev made public some intense growing self-doubts among privileged Russians who looked up, out of long-established habit, to Western Europe for cultural direction but felt painfully alienated from the vast wretched majority of the Russian people. In a poem written as early as 1824, Pushkin had made his protagonist wonder if “the truth is somewhere outside him, perhaps in some other land, in Europe, for instance, with her stable historical order and well-established social and civic life.” For much of the nineteenth century, Turgenev, Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky were to define in diverse and fruitful ways their own ambivalent relationship with the West as well as with their semi-derelict society.

ONE OF
Pushkin’s disciples, Gogol, turned out to be one of the most influential figures in this great intellectual and spiritual awakening of Russia. He published his first stories in 1831–32, four years before the publication of Chaadaev’s letter. It was to these brisk comic sketches about life in the Ukraine that V. S. Naipaul once compared the stories about the peasant Indian world of Trinidad written by his father, Seepersad. Naipaul saw and heard these stories come into being during the first eighteen years of his life, which he spent in Trinidad; then, for three years, from 1950 until his father died, he followed their progress from England. They gave Naipaul not only his literary ambition but also—at a time of poverty and despair in England, when Naipaul began to write and didn’t know how to go on—its crucial basis.

The stories drew upon Seepersad’s experience as a journalist
and government official in the Trinidad countryside, where his own family along with other descendants of Indian indentured labourers had re-created a miniature village India. They dealt partly in romance, in that they presented the Hindu world of the peasants as idyllically whole, in which ancient ritual and myth explained and fulfilled all human desires. Although Seepersad based his characters on members of his own extended family, he did not write about their dereliction and pain, and the humiliation he had himself suffered as a young waif. But then, as Naipaul wrote in his foreword to an edition of Seepersad’s stories published in 1976, “certain things can never become material. My father never in his life reached that point of rest from which he could look back at his past.”

For Naipaul, the comparison with Gogol ended here. Seepersad found his voice as a writer in the last hard years of life in Port of Spain; Gogol found it at the beginning of his career. Seepersad made the long journey away from his peasant origins, discovered a literary vocation through journalism, only to find that he had little to write about; Gogol overcame in his early stories what Chaadaev saw as a shameful intellectual and literary inertia, and then had, as material, “Russia to fall back on and claim.”

As Naipaul saw it, Seepersad was inhibited as much by his “formless, unmade society” as by his personal circumstances. For three centuries, the Caribbean island of Trinidad had been a labour camp for the empires of Europe. Slaves and indentured labourers from different parts of Africa and Asia had steadily replaced its original Indian population. As a colonial society, it was even more artificial, fragmented and dependent on the metropolitan West than the Russia Chaadeav described. It was also very small, politically unimportant and geographically isolated from the rest of the world. It wasn’t much encountered in print; and, as the first attempts of Naipaul and his father proved, it was very hard to write about.

From the beginning, there was a “mismatch,” as Naipaul later
wrote in “Reading and Writing” (1998), between his father’s “ambition, coming from outside, from another culture, and our community, which had no living literary tradition.” As Naipaul himself discovered, reading the literature that Trinidad imported along with the language from England was more confusing than helpful. “Great novelists wrote about highly organized societies. I had no such society; I couldn’t share the assumptions of the writers; I didn’t see my world reflected in theirs.” Wordsworth’s daffodil was a “pretty little flower, no doubt; but we had never seen it.” Foreign books worked best when they could be adapted to local conditions. Dickens’s rain and drizzle had to be turned into tropical downpours. “But no writer, however individual his vision, could be separated from his society”; and the imported books remained alien and incomprehensible.

At the same time, the literature from Europe had an irresistible glamour—the “soft power” of a successful imperial civilization. It obscured direct vision of one’s own society. If “to be a colonial,” as Naipaul wrote in an early essay titled “East Indian,” was “to be a little ridiculous and unlikely, especially in the eyes of someone from the metropolitan country,” then to have, as a colonial, literary ambitions was to know an even deeper shame and awkwardness. For, “until they have been written about societies appear to be without shape and
embarrassing.
” It was not easy to resist the doubt that the true subjects of literature lay in Europe, in “its stable historical order and well-established social and civic life.”

IT WAS
this insidious intellectual colonialism that drained Naipaul of “the courage to do a simple thing like mentioning the name of a Port of Spain street.” The embarrassment and difficulty seem to have remained even as Naipaul began, after six futile years in England, to free himself of the metropolitan tradition, and found the courage to write about the Port of Spain street he knew. In
Miguel Street
(1959), his first publishable
book, which drew from his childhood in Port of Spain, he simplified and suppressed much of his experience. The memory of the characters came from “a tormented time. But that was not how I remembered it. My family circumstances had been too confused; I preferred not to focus on them.”

But he had made a start.
Miguel Street
opened up his Trinidad past, which Naipaul hadn’t previously thought of as suitable material, and which he began to explore with rapidly increasing confidence. His next three books included what is now seen as the epic of the post-colonial world,
A House for Mr. Biswas
(1961). In
Biswas,
which drew upon his father’s stories of rural Trinidad as well as his lifelong quest for security and stability, Naipaul saw most clearly the “completeness and value” of his experience as a child in Trinidad.

But this material was fixed: “It couldn’t be added to.” Naipaul was still some years away from a fuller awareness of Trinidad’s history—the history of genocide, exploitation, misery and neglect—that he would reach while researching
The Loss of El Dorado
(1969). He couldn’t yet write a novel about his years in England; and fiction, which functions “best within certain fixed social boundaries,” seemed unable to use fruitfully Naipaul’s growing knowledge. Travel books about the Caribbean and India promised a release; but once again, free-floating literary ambition came up against fixed literary tradition. For the travel book, Naipaul discovered, was even more inseparably a part of a metropolitan and imperial tradition than the novel.

The English travelers Naipaul sought to emulate—D. H. Lawrence, Aldous Huxley, Evelyn Waugh—“wrote at a time of empire”; they “inevitably in their travel became semi-imperial.” He couldn’t be that kind of traveller in either the Caribbean or India, the land of his ancestors. He later wrote of his first trip to India in the early 1960s in
The Enigma of Arrival
(1987) that “there was no model for me here in this exploration, neither Forster nor Ackerley, nor Kipling could help.” He couldn’t assume their poses of detachment and light irony because “to
look as a visitor, at other semi-derelict communities in despoiled land … was to see, as from a distance, what one’s own community might have looked like.”

Such unavoidable reminders of his own past—the past he had barely outgrown in the early sixties—made Naipaul a “fearful traveller” in India. But it also forced him to “define myself very clearly to myself”: a reckoning with historical and literary location that became a habit with Naipaul and, eventually, the basis for his assessments of other writers as well. His literary and autobiographical essays, which form a companion volume to the close readings of Indian, African and American societies collected in
The Writer and the World
(2002), discuss writers as varied as Kipling, Gandhi, Nirad C. Chaudhuri, Conrad and R. K. Narayan. They depend on particular, often highly original, interpretations of history and invariably turn upon the 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.

FOR NAIPAUL,
both the virtues and limitations of Kipling’s
Plain Tales from the Hills
derive from the author’s membership in the cosy elite club of imperial Anglo-India. “This artificial, complete and homogenous world did not require explanations.” It made Kipling’s irony subtle and “private,” and his prose “allusive, elliptical … easy but packed.” However, in Naipaul’s complex historical analysis, the same parochial Anglo-India that made Kipling’s early work possible prevented the growth of self-knowledge among Indians.

In the second half of the nineteenth century, the British in India moved far from the “New Learning” of Europe they had originally represented to modernising Indians. They came to sympathise more with the “unintellectual simplicities of the blue-eyed Pathan” than with the Bangalis discussing Darwin
and Mill. “Suburban and philistine,” they became indifferent to the Indian aspirations to modernity which fed the nineteenth-century Bengali intellectual renaissance, and whose passing Nirad C. Chaudhuri mourned in
Autobiography of an Unknown Indian
(1951). Not surprisingly, the cultures of India and Britain remained “opposed”; and the shared language—English—only made for more “cultural confusion.”

Naipaul saw the “misunderstandings and futility of the Indo-English encounter” and the “intellectual confusion of the new India” reflected in Indian autobiographies, in their lack of physical detail and rigorous self-questioning. The books spoke to him of a society “which has not learned to see and is incapable of assessing itself, which asks no questions because ritual and myth have provided all the answers.” Gandhi’s “obsession with vows, food, experiments, recurring illness” had turned his autobiography into a “bastard form in which a religious view of life, laudable in one culture, is converted steadily into self-love, disagreeable in another culture.”

For Naipaul, the novel in India was another example of a misunderstood and misapplied literary form. As he saw it, the novel developed, and had its greatest masters, in Europe. This was not an accident. The novel had emerged from the complex interplay of such specific historical factors as industrial growth, imperial expansion, mass literacy, widespread secularisation and the rise of the middle class. The form, “so attractive, apparently easy to imitate,” was suffused with, as Naipaul wrote in “Reading and Writing,” “metropolitan assumptions about society: the availability of a wider learning, an idea of history, a concern with self-knowledge.” In post-colonial India, Naipaul found that either the assumptions were “wrong” or the wider learning was “missing or imperfect.”

The novelist R. K. Narayan was a “comfort and example” to both Naipaul and his father in attempting the difficult task of writing in English about Indian life. To Naipaul, he “appeared to be writing from within his culture.” “He truly possessed his
world. It was complete and always there, waiting for him.” But that world proved on closer examination by Naipaul to be static. Narayan’s characters seemed to Naipaul “oddly insulated from history”—a history of defeat and subjection that was so oppressively present in India that Narayan’s fictional world could only reveal itself as “not, after all, as rooted and complete as it appears.” As Naipaul saw it, the novel in India, and specifically Narayan, could “deal well with the externals of things,” but often “miss their terrible essence.”

NAIPAUL HIMSELF
had begun with the externals of things, hoping to arrive, through literature, at “a complete world waiting for me somewhere.” “I suppose,” Naipaul wrote in an essay on Conrad he published in 1974, “that in my fantasy I had seen myself coming to England as to some purely literary region, where, untrammelled by the accidents of history or background, I could make a romantic career for myself as a writer.” Instead, a “political panic” had awaited Naipaul out of his stagnant colonial world of Trinidad. To move in the bigger world was, for Naipaul, to know a cruelly fraught imperial history and his own place in it; it was to be exposed to the “half-made societies” that “constantly made and unmade themselves”: the anguished realizations that were made more acute, instead of being mitigated, by his choice of a literary vocation in England.

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