Gabrielle Bellot: On the Enigma of V.S. Naipaul
Bigoted, Violent, and Swirling with Contradictions
In 1962, in an infamous section of The Middle Passage, Sir V.S. Naipaul’s critical tour through a variety of Caribbean islands, Naipaul pauses in his specific critique to address the supposed problems of the Caribbean as a whole. He had undertaken the journey at the behest of Dr. Eric Williams, then the Premier of Trinidad. “History is built around achievement and creation, and nothing was created in the West Indies,” Naipaul—born Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul—said. Here was a rank dismissal of the very world he nonetheless captured with care in his books, a contradiction in identity that defined Naipaul to his death.
I don’t know how not to feel conflicted about Naipaul, the Trinidadian who would have bristled, instinctively, at being remembered as a Trinidadian. (Upon seeing himself listed as a “West-Indian novelist,” Naipaul once abandoned a publisher; he did not like having identities thrust upon him in general.)
On the one hand, some of his books brim with power, beauty, and wit. I remember, fondly, reading A House for Mr. Biswas and Miguel Street in particular, fathomless books that seemed to capture something I understood myself about my experiences growing up in Dominica, a number of islands up from Naipaul’s own Trinidad and Tobago. His Nobel lecture seemed a work of historical uncovering, as he described not only his upbringing in his birthplace, Chaguanas, but histories he had never encountered in school about the Amerindians who had lived there before, as well as the East Indian descendants of indentured laborers who lived, he wrote poignantly in the speech, “in our own fading India,” a “kind of India” they had brought to Trinidad, “which we could, as it were, unroll like a carpet on the flat land.”
This reflection was at once specific to Trinidad and resonant through much of our archipelago, this way that we could live simultaneously in one makeshift version of an ancestral country—perhaps one we had never even set foot in, though our parents said we were English, or Indian—and in an island still in search of its own self-definition. The titular Mr. Biswas seemed an existential exemplar of qualities I saw growing up: frustration, naivete, a quiet tragicomic sadness, a desire for more amidst failures. How I loved the novels and stories of his I read early on. Naipaul is integral to our region’s literary history. He will never fade.
On the other hand, you almost wanted him to fade, not because his star was too bright, but because it had become incandescent with shame. He was an embarrassment as much of riches as of vile, venomous bigotry. In an example of misogyny so blatant as to almost seem comical, Naipaul argued that women could not write as well as men—and that, so as to avoid wasting his time reading the products of such inferior minds, he had learnt to tell from the first few paragraphs of any book the gender of its author. With a blend of demented pride, blunt honesty, and self-flagellation, he told his authorized biographer, Patrick French, just how he had beaten and bruised Margaret Gooding, the Anglo-Argentine lover he met in 1972. “I was very violent with her for two days with my hand; my hand begun to hurt,” he was recorded as telling French in The World Is What It Is (2008). “She didn’t mind it at all,” he continued. “She thought of it in terms of my passion for her. Her face was really bad. She couldn’t appear in public. My hand was swollen. I was utterly helpless,” he added, somewhat surprisingly. “I have enormous sympathy for people who do strange things out of passion.”
Incredibly, this instance of abuse occurred because, according to Naipaul, his lover “was having a relationship” with an Argentine banker “for the means to get to me”—in other words, so as to be able to visit Naipaul more easily. In Naipaul’s account, Gooding “said she would have slept with him a hundred times to get to me, and I believed her actually . . . I was very upset.” The woman with whom he was cheating on his wife had seemingly cheated on him in order to get closer to him, and this justified his abuse of her, he seemed to believe, living less in reality than in the swirling pantheon in his head, a necropolis and Acropolis dense with ithyphallic obelisks and architecture built by great men.
He claimed to have been sexually assaulted by his cousin Boysie at six or seven, a revelation that makes me feel sympathy for him. Yet Naipaul, refusing to be pitied, couched the repeated painful incidents in abrasive language: a tactic of deflecting the severity of abuse on the one hand, and typical Naipaul on the other. The molestation “gave me a hatred, a detestation of this homosexual thing,” he said, and argued that “I think it is part of Indian extended family life, which is an abomination in some ways, a can of worms . . . All children are abused . . . It is almost like a rite of passage.” Such passages are so Naipaulian. It’s hard not to look at him in a softer light after such a revelation, yet his statements—mixing queerness with molestation, generalizations about Indian families—feel like an unwarranted slap.
Beyond this, Naipaul incurred the wrath of Edward Said, amongst many others, for his repeated negative generalizations about Islam, which he viewed as catastrophic. Africa as a whole he deemed “an obscene continent, fit only for second-rate people” in a letter to Paul Theroux after hearing of Idi Amin’s notorious expulsion of Asians from Uganda. While he was repeatedly drawn by some ancestral pull to India, he was able to just as easily quip that women wearing bindis signified “my head is empty.” In 2004, he demeaned multiculturalism as “absurd” and dismissively labeled it “multi-culti”: a cultish belief that had, in his view, failed, since “if a man picks himself up and comes to another country he must meet it halfway.” (He avoided, however, writing indignant books about, say, Germany and China, despite readers asking him in letters to do so; they were not his to write about, he said, showing that he gave himself boundaries.) When he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 2001, he declined to mention Trinidad in his statement of acceptance, naming, instead, England and India. Invoking Trinidad would “encumber the tribute,” he explained when asked about this large omission.
Like Derek Walcott, the Caribbean’s other literary Nobel Prize winner, Naipaul was an epochal, multitudinous author who wielded his power to try to take advantage of women—they both belonged to a class of men who seemed to believe they could get away with anything where women were concerned. If they resembled each other in such negative particulars, Walcott was more direct about the ambiguity, the multifariousness, of his ethnic and cultural identities. This led to the St. Lucian poet getting the upper hand on Naipaul before the former’s death, as Walcott, in a smilingly cruel poem delivered to a live audience at a literary festival, declared Naipaul’s fiction “dead” and called Sir Vidia a “mongoose,” a pointed comparison meant to suggest that Naipaul was little more than a symbol of colonialism, as mongooses had been introduced to certain islands by the Europeans.
Naipaul was an abusive, irascible, melancholic man, an archetype of the sneering provocateur, of the grinning clown who sat on stoops in a town and made fun of everyone passing by, of the bigoted uncle whose presence the less bigoted dread at certain family gatherings, of the Internet troll who delighted in causing offense. He was at once a towering talent and a brown man who sequaciously prostrated himself before his former colonial masters, quipping that those of us who had darker skin and those of us who were women—heaven forfend we be both!—were inferior.
Yet he was also, unquestionably, a great writer.
The author is not dead, contra Roland Barthes—but how, then, to deal with Naipaul and his ilk?
In some senses, Naipaul was an enigma, a Blakean contradiction come off the page, a melancholy man convinced he was little more than dust and one of Plato’s cave shadows—by virtue of being born in an island so forgettable, so clothed-in-the-night-of-civilization—and, at the same time, a man utterly certain he was flame and brilliance itself, fearful symmetries, fire burning both tigrine and tamed. Naipaul could see that those of us living in former colonies had to work harder for recognition in the wider world; all the same, he yearned for the recognition of a largely white, male literary class that fetishized, without questions about its omissions, the Western Canon. Naipaul could critique colonialism; Naipaul was also an apologist for colonialism, a type you see now and then in our islands, the kind of man who thinks everything was better when the British were in charge because they, at least, knew what civilization was, and aren’t our failures to ape them the result of us being, as Naipaul once called black Trinidadians, “monkeys?” Right down to the Oxbridge accent he cultivated and maintained throughout his life, he was a member of the old guard, sycophantic towards “civilization” and furious at what he perceived as the failures of the Commonwealth.
What wealth was there, really, the choleric author mused, in these commons, even as these “common” places and people were what furnished his earlier—and arguably most memorable—books? Yet his power came, in part, from a world he looked down upon, and he never fully learnt how to live with that uncomfortable truth.“Naipaul was an abusive, irascible, melancholic man, an archetype of the sneering provocateur, of the grinning clown who sat on stoops in a town and made fun of everyone passing by.”
Perhaps the incident that best illustrated his conflicted reputation was how nations around the world responded to his Nobel Prize win. As French notes, Trinidad and Tobago’s president sent Naipaul a congratulatory letter “on heavy writing paper”; Indians—from Bollywood stars to the president—sent “adulatory letters”; and Spain’s prime minister told Naipaul he should “drop by.” At the same time, “an Iranian newspaper denounced him for spreading venom and hatred,” and the Muslim Council of Britain viewed his win of the Nobel as “a cynical gesture to humiliate Muslims.” He was loved; he was hated. You might similarly read his being knighted in 1990 as an honor or as confirmation of a cringe-worthy desire for colonial acceptance.
“My background is at once exceedingly simple and exceedingly confused,” he acknowledged in his Nobel lecture, which was fittingly titled “Two Worlds.” This is why we must not bury Naipaul’s memory. His contradictions are part of the swirling questions of what it means to be Trinidadian, as well as Caribbean more broadly. His subject was, he reflected retrospectively in his Nobel lecture, a “widespread colonial schizophrenia,” a term that, while perhaps outdated, implies the sharp see-sawing of identity in his work.
“[E]verything of value about me is in my books,” he declared in the same lecture. “I am the sum of my books.” The speech circled around Proust’s arguments against the critic Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve, who had argued that one must know a writer outside their books to understand the writer inside them; Naipaul and Proust fervently disagreed. There is value, indeed, in Naipaul’s books. But we cannot ignore what he did outside of them. As with all artists, all people, it is critical we remember all sides of Naipaul if we want a nuanced view of his impact. “Life is not a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged,” Virginia Woolf famously wrote in “Modern Fiction.” For Woolf, life resisted too-simple symmetries; it was instead “a luminous halo,” something complex, something harder to pin down into a clear, definitive equation or rhythm. Few histories are black and white, even as Naipaul, particularly outside his fiction, appeared to desire a more monochromatic world. Instead, history, like most things, is grey, blurred. So too is Naipaul, who never fully found the stable, well-lit place he, like Mr. Biswas, longed to call his own. I can’t forgive his sins. But some of his stories remained in me, as they did in many others.
And perhaps that is what literature does: it removes the ground beneath our feet, but it also gives us a home, diaphanous yet durable, and the best of it also finds a place, later, inside us.