If Philip Roth was the assiduous bard of Newark, then VS Naipaul was the cranky yet meticulous balladeer of the rootless world.
Both chronicled the postwar 20th century. Roth bouncing around among Jews of various varieties but keeping his narrative imagination mostly limited to America and Naipaul journeying to violent postcolonial places and charting the lives of suppressed, religion-encumbered, faith-burdened peoples.
His was an all-encompassing rage: he raged against half-formed societies; he raged against public defecation; he raged against the colonisers and he raged against the colonised.
Both wrote with vigour and produced acerbic commentaries in the last century. In the aughts Roth continued to work bringing out slim books of great significance; Naipaul, however, created lesser, shallow works and signed off with a travel book on Africa, which caused a furious uproar again echoing what his earlier, stronger works on the dark continent had unleashed.
After The Masque of Africa, which appeared in 2010, Naipaul’s remarkable life was reduced to making starry yet teary-eyed appearances at literary festivals where he barely could control his bursting emotions. His second wife Nadira, whom he had met in Pakistan while writing the sequel to Among the Believers, chaperoned him everywhere. Naipaul had circumnavigated many geographies and built his Empire of One. Now that empire, falling apart in senescence, was being navigated for him by a wife.
For a man who had spent his entire life squabbling with cultures and feuding with critics and disparaging female writers, it was quite a comedown. A writer whose grip on his narratives was so tight that not a word seemed out of place in his chiselled and spare sentences was now just disintegrating in public. His initial work like Miguel Street and The Suffrage of Elvira was comedic and mostly based on his birthplace in the Caribbeans. It was only when he began to travel that Naipaul developed his famous rage.
His marriage to Patricia, his first wife, had become a prison and he increasingly spent his time travelling on journalistic assignments and conducting a tempestuous, sometimes violent affair with an Argentine mistress. Patricia suffered quietly in England, speaking more to her diary than her husband, and Margaret, his mistress, suffered in hotel rooms as the Great Writer travelled far and wide to understand the world. Margaret was even slapped around as the writer’s rage turned personal. His moods swung and he, in turn, swung at Margaret. Then, all of a sudden, his wife died of breast cancer (he told his biographer he somehow felt he had killed her) and he met Nadira, and Margaret, evaporating from Naipaul’s life, became a sad presence in the biographer’s extraordinary tale, her intensely sexual affair with the great man becoming common knowledge in Patrick French’s great biography.
In between his marital disquiet and extramarital turbulence, Naipaul frequented prostitutes like a sex-starved sailor. Conrad, his literary predecessor, had roamed many lands as a shipman but rarely written about his visits to prostitutes as salts of those days certainly did (Maya Jasanoff’s brilliant book on Conrad does not mention any such assignation, furtive or overt). Naipaul owed much to Conrad, but later boasted that A Bend in the River, his novelistic take on Africa, was better than Conrad’s works. His blowhard ways worsened as he aged. The braggart in him brutally put down writers of immense repute and the misogynist in him trashed female writers.
Naipaul was puffed up (was it all show?) largely because of his insecurities and vulnerabilities. A boy of 18 coming from Trinidad to England, he felt fragile. He tussled with his demons and had a breakdown. He even became suicidal. His father Seepersad died young at 46, carving out a writerly future for himself living in his wife’s house where he found his independence constantly challenged. Seepersad ultimately managed to break away and the father’s trials to protect his manhood and foster his creativity became the basis of Naipaul’s breakout book A House for Mr Biswas.
But it is not in these public spectacles of teary-eyed fumblings and acrimonious behaviour, which unfortunately became the defining moments of his old age, that Naipaul’s legacy is to be found. His work will always be known for its accurate portrayals. Even when he was documenting resentments, Naipaul was unflinchingly honest. Even when he was ripping apart societies, he was commendably brave. Even when he was puncturing people’s pomposities, his sharp eye never wavered. Even when he was railing at religions, his sentences never lost their power.
Then Naipaul changed his course. The humour in his earlier books vanished and the books that came out of his travels were bitter and angry. He produced some of his best work during this period. When his novelistic imagination turned fallow, Naipaul travelled. He went to Americas, India and non-Arab Islamic nations. The Return of Eva Peron, a collection of his astute essays on Latin America and its tinpot dictatorships, is perhaps the best work that came out of his travels. His engagement with Islam and Africa was largely critical and he became a lightning rod for both Africans and Muslims. Edward Said took him apart; Chinua Achebe lambasted him and his fellow West Indian and Nobel winner Derek Walcott called him VS Nightfall, a rather poetic insult by a Caribbean compatriot who was angered by Naipaul’s rancorous takedown of the people, patois and societies of his birthplace.
In India, as the BJP was furiously marching on from the obscurity of the yatras to the opulence of power in Delhi, Naipaul became a sudden newspaper celebrity because of his tendentious comments on Muslim invasions. But somehow his sudden ascension to the oracular seat in India didn’t last as BJP took power and found and built many of its own messiahs. Naipaul, who in his Nobel acceptance speech acknowledged a debt to his ancestral land, became largely a star attraction at literary festivals where he jousted contemptuously with Indian writers and later, growing frail and fragile, wept openly. He could hide his emotions and youthful vulnerabilities in his literary work, but aged and retired from writing he had no place to take his emotions to. So the narcissist lost his braggadocio and wept copiously.
Naipaul would be remembered for his magical sentences and complete mastery of the English language. He was a believer in spareness and simplicity. Rarely did his words send you chasing dictionaries but they captured, in his simple yet intricately built sentences, the essence of life, its small rewards and its big resentments.
Before the celebrated experimenters such as Sebald, Naipaul was innovating by mixing fiction with nonfiction and autobiography. The Enigma of Arrival, his outstanding work where he blended these three forms, is a monument to experimentation. Naipaul was bored with the novel. His editor of many books Diana Athill said he used to go into a pit after writing a book. Sitting down to write a book, he himself said, he felt artificial. But the books had no artifice. He used to berate the novel, too, calling it a dead form. But his fictions and nonfictions have enough oxygen in them to sustain a nation’s literature.
The world is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it, Naipaul wrote. Barack Obama, in an interview to Michiko Kakutani as his presidency was winding down, found Naipaul’s vision very bleak and pessimistic. But the election of Donald Trump proves Naipaul right. The Democrats allowed themselves to be nothing and found no place in the White House. Naipaul had cannily dissected Republican pieties and foibles in his book on the Deep South. Walking across the Mason-Dixon line in A Turn in the South, Naipaul had written sharply about race and religion and their many conflicts and contradictions. And he had praised, something rare for Naipaul, James Baldwin, the black writer whose work is now being reread widely as America again grapples with its racial gladiators.
Men who allow themselves to be nothing may not have any place in the world, but they will always be found in Naipaul’s books. He is the documentarian of their hubris and humiliations; he is the observer of their resentments and rejections; he is the chronicler of their victories and vexations. For that alone, Naipaul will be read always.
Updated Date: Aug 13, 2018 16:30:06 IST