The Painful Sum of Things
On V. S. Naipaul
The writer V. S. Naipaul died on August 11, 2018, at the age of 85. The correspondence below took place over the following week.
I saw the news about Naipaul. I was expecting it: I had heard he was seriously ailing as far back as 2015, and since then I have returned intermittently to his books, rereading several, with a strange uneasiness or sense of preparation.
Now that he has died, the preparation feels insufficient: the uneasiness remains. I suspect you feel it as well: how to speak about a writer whose work has been meaningful — in my case, profoundly so; I could not imagine my life without it — as well as a source of frustration or real pain. I have admired Naipaul as much as I have found him difficult to admire, a murky admixture that I find difficult to explain or clarify, and which I find with no other writer to anything like the same degree. (Edward Said referred to his “pain and admiration,” and dissonant phrases of that kind are scattered through appreciations of his work.) I know, too, that you knew him, which I did not. I don’t know if that makes him more or less difficult to appraise.
Perhaps it would have been better for me to work all this out before he died, but since it gives an occasion like no other, I thought I’d write you.
Yes, I thought several times in recent years while hearing news of his ill health: I should write something, put together a more complex record of my debt to him, and also of the ways in which his vision was constricted and constricting. For many aspiring writers from modest backgrounds, in the West as well as in Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean, he was the first writer who made us think that we, too, had something to say, and that we, too, had an intellectual claim upon the world. He was a great enabler in this sense, starting the underconfident and less resourceful among us on long journeys. In societies and cultures where the idea of a whole life devoted to writing and thinking is confined to the privileged members of the population, Naipaul’s example — that of a man making himself a writer through sheer effort — was a great boost. His novelistic gifts were so great, endowing even very minor characters in A House for Mr. Biswas and A Bend in the River with dignity. His harsh critiques of India, in particular, and postcolonial societies, in general, came as a bracing revelation — that this kind of writing is possible, even necessary.
This was the first phase of my engagement with his writing, when Naipaul as an example and innovator was hugely important. But this relationship was to change — inevitably. Over time the larger political and social contexts in which a writer writes and is read and receives acclaim start to become visible, and one’s own work starts to be clarified. I read all of Naipaul, introduced two volumes of his essays, and briefly entertained the idea of writing his biography. For many years, however, I have felt closer to Stuart Hall than to Naipaul.
It’s interesting you bring up Hall, whose posthumously issued memoir, Familiar Stranger, I read last year. Hall brings up Naipaul in the context of attending Oxford and listening to the BBC radio program Caribbean Voices, in which Naipaul participated alongside other great figures — George Lamming, Derek Walcott, et al. Thrown into relief, Naipaul comes across as unpleasant, self-loathing — unwilling, in a way, to be seen to participate in the collective project of fashioning a Caribbean identity in the new island home. By institutionalizing the study of diaspora cultures (among other achievements), and making it possible for countless others to do the same, Hall modeled a more generous attitude to the place he came from than Naipaul did. He was also much closer to — was central in founding — the academic study of the postcolonial world. I was introduced to both of them at the same time, when I was in university in the early 2000s.
And yet I read Hall’s memoir wincing with the same kinds of recognition that attend my readings of Naipaul (especially his travel books on India), and I feel that they share commonalities obscured by their divergent careers and their obvious political differences. Hall was a child of the small African diaspora bourgeoisie who adopted an ersatz version of English society in Jamaica; Naipaul of an impoverished Hindu family, his father notoriously frustrated in his desire to achieve literary success. Both of their self-narratives shift relentlessly: from a sense of identity with others to a sense of alienation from the people they are expected to identify with. Hall wrote of how, growing up in privileged surroundings, he never knew the “other, darker Jamaica of the multitude”; but then, having moved to England, he became part of this multitude. He remembers the shock of seeing black people at Paddington Station in the 1950s in England. “What I thought I had left behind as an unresolved dilemma — the difficulties my family background had bequeathed to me of neither wanting any identification with my own social stratum, nor being able to feel present in my own homeland, conscious of the chasm that separated me from the multitude — had turned up to meet me on the other side of the Atlantic,” he writes.
Scenes like this are classically Naipauline. I was rereading the section “The Journey” from The Enigma of Arrival — the most beautiful of his books — and was struck again when, on the ship from New York to Southampton, the stewards ask a wealthier black passenger to share a room with Naipaul. Both understand the moment immediately. “It’s because I’m colored you’re putting me here with him,” the black man says in anger. Naipaul, too, tries to avoid the moment of identification, and mulls it later:
In Puerto Rico there had been the Trinidad Negro in a tight jacket on his way to Harlem. Here was a man from Harlem or black America on his way to Germany. In each there were aspects of myself. But, with my Asiatic background, I resisted the comparison; and I was traveling to be a writer. It was too frightening to accept the other thing, to face the other thing; it was to be diminished as man and writer. Racial diminution formed no part of the material of the kind of writer I was setting out to be.
Were the passage to end here, it would be empty, politically and morally: Naipaul wishes to be a Writer, a raceless figure, and he views it as an achievement to be that. But then he doubles back from the vantage point of the present:
Thinking of myself as a writer, I was hiding my experience from myself; hiding myself from my experience. And even when I became a writer I was without the means, for many years, to cope with that disturbance.
He recognizes the limits on solidarity, recognizes the aspects of it that he hides from, recognizes the trauma of it — unmistakably colonial. And yet he stops at the recognition. I am not certain that he ever found the means to cope with the disturbance. He could only return to it.
What is damaged and wounding and reactionary in Naipaul is essential, a critical part of the work, not something ancillary or disfiguringTweet
Hall excavated the same ground. (“Over and over something would remain / Unbalanced in the painful sum of things.” — James Merrill, “For Proust.”) But Hall found the intellectual resources, among colleagues, European and English and diaspora theorists, the multiracial movement on the left against Thatcher. (From the pages of Familiar Stranger, one gets the sense that it was never quite enough.) Partly to his detriment, Naipaul was thrown constantly back on himself, as if he had nowhere to turn — as if that were the only path available to a writer, to find what appeared to be one’s own way. “You sense that the curve of evolution in his own work comes from within himself and is something he alone fully understands,” Hilary Mantel wrote, in one of the most succinct, perceptive essays on the writer. It is unclear whether figures like the narrator of Teju Cole’s Open City, who rejects a fraternal gesture from an African cabdriver (“I was in no mood for people who tried to lay claims on me,” he says), could exist without the Naipaul prototype: the sacked newspaper reporter; the mimic man; the servant in unfamiliar surroundings in Washington DC; Naipaul himself, in India for the first time, thinking: “To be a member of a minority community has always seemed to me attractive. To be one of four hundred and thirty-nine million Indians is terrifying.”
The question is whether this fundamental dissonance had to find the toxic resolutions that it did: his Islamophobic comments that gave succor to Hindutva; the current of antiblackness that courses through his work; the consistent disregard for women writers and editors. Illiberalism became for him a reflex, in the classic manner of reactionaries — though in the time when I was reading him, the US commenced its “war on terror,” and I was dispossessed of the idea that liberalism made a stable foundation for toleration and pluralism. I am not certain that he adopted a colonial view, as others said he did; as late as The Enigma of Arrival, the degree of estrangement from this view is enormous. Nor am I certain that his most wretched provocations are revealing. But it has taken me some time to come around to feeling in Naipaul what Adorno recognized in Wagner: that what is damaged and wounding and reactionary in him is essential, a critical part of the work, not something ancillary or disfiguring.
A news report today said that the new editor of the Daily Mail was summoned to Naipaul’s deathbed by his wife, and together they read Tennyson aloud as the man slipped into oblivion. I find this tableau full of unbearable ironies — that the editor of Britain’s most xenophobic tabloid should minister to the greatest postcolonial novelist of our time with the lyrics of the bard of British imperialism. From what I know of Naipaul’s last years, they were full of rich and powerful people paying court to him and making him feel cherished. Of course, this is consistent with the choices he made when he was alive and well — and, as you say, such choices go back to his early days in London, when he distanced himself from his West Indian peers; turned his back not only on political community, but also on other ways of feeling love and solidarity (companionship, children, ordinary friendships); and embarked on this perilous project of extreme individualism with a half-romantic, half-bourgeois notion of what it means to be a writer.
You are right to think that this project, with its built-in dissatisfactions, could only have terrible political and emotional consequences — racism, Islamophobia, misogyny, and general misanthropy. There is an incandescent essay by Vivian Gornick on Naipaul and Baldwin — on why the latter opens up new places for reflection and action while the former closes them down. She concludes that Baldwin’s unavoidable engagement with the tormented history of African Americans saves him from the sterile despair she identifies in Naipaul’s nonfiction writing. This is a very important point — and complements one that Mantel makes about the endlessly self-referential quality of his work. Naipaul did not have an equally profound stake in any society he knew — or in the societies he condemned for failing to be more like the civilized West. He was embraced early in his career by Britain’s white literary establishment; he retreated to the countryside but took little interest in British politics and professed disdain for the political struggles and intellectual endeavors of people like Stuart Hall. He was embarrassed about his origins in the small island of Trinidad and hoped to achieve a generous identity through his ancestral country. But an evidently weak and intellectually confused India disappointed and shamed him until the Hindu nationalists emerged on the scene and India began to look like a superpower-in-waiting.
It’s interesting that you mention Wagner, who followed a somewhat similar trajectory: the aspiring provincial in the metropolis who retreats from private humiliations into grandiose fantasies of self and nation. Naipaul’s own fears and compensatory fantasies of strength probably developed early in his journey to the imperial metropolis, and during a pretty relentless experience of racism in England in the 1950s and ’60s. Perhaps success of the kind he longed for and often received was no salve for these early wounds. He seems never to have ceased to feel a dissonance between the private and public self — that distortion he first began to feel on the epochal journey he describes in The Enigma of Arrival. He features, for instance, in Anthony Powell’s diaries, inventively insulting Arabs or some other dark-skinned minority. I often wonder if Naipaul hated this side of himself even then — the performer from the colonies amusing a white audience that knows nothing or very little about his background. It may be why he turned so violently against Powell, his greatest early friend and supporter in England. In abandoning and betraying his friendships, he seems to have been running away from reminders of his shameful performances, his discarded selves, and into the security of wealth and power, where he could be cherished (a favorite word of his, incidentally) as a singular and matchless writer.
I also find it interesting that honesty for Naipaul too often meant the untrammeled expression of extreme prejudice — of the kind the far right today wants to legitimate in the name of free speech. It never amounted to an inquiry into the sources of prejudice. For instance, why did he never explore the reasons behind his loathing of writing by women? Of course, anyone who knows a little bit about Trinidad, the Indian subcontinent, or the Hindu caste system knows that his dislike of black people was rooted in the communal politics of the island, the Hindu distrust of Muslims, the feudal-patriarchal view of women as best confined to the domestic sphere, and the Brahmin’s disdain for the swarthy alien. Naipaul took these primal fears of an insecure but entitled Indian minority to different parts of the world, enacting and elaborating them in very different contexts. This is why his travel books are best read as records of his own neuroses.
I think my own early admiration came to be qualified as I discovered his weirdly intransigent isolation and his failure to break it through worldly success. I grew up in India, in a very dense web of social relations, aware of the histories of diverse populations around me, and with several oral and literary cultures as my own inheritance. The world was not divided for me, as it seemed to be for Naipaul, between those who have achieved the summit of civilization (the modern West) and those in half-made or unmade societies who are trying but failing miserably to get there. There was enough postcolonial idealism around for us to reject the neoliberal, there-is-no-alternative notion that “the world is what it is” and people who don’t find a place in it are nothing. The activists, writers, and thinkers I knew thought that such an unjust world could be changed; at the very least they wished to explore how the world came to be as it is. Naipaul’s uncompromising individualism was indeed inspiring in a climate that did not encourage individual expression, let alone writerly ambition. But as I began to write, its limits came quickly into view. I began to see, too, after first traveling to the West in the mid-’90s, how Naipaul — or, more precisely, the idea of Naipaul as a brutally honest witness to the third world’s absurdities — was a product of the cold war’s intellectual culture.
What you say about Naipaul and the cold war rings true. It is obvious in the reception of his work: it seems fatuous that so many reviews upheld him as a reliable witness to the convulsions of third worldism. People found confirmation for what they wanted to see. India, Argentina, Central Africa: so it was not going to work out after all. Naipaul himself appeared conditioned by the reception, increasingly ready to play the fluid, mobile reporter — colonial but also cosmopolitan, brown but also déraciné — that was required. But it is less clear to me that he set out to be this person. The first two books on India are clarifying in this regard. In the second, India: A Wounded Civilization, Naipaul performs the sententious figure of caricature: one stentorian pronouncement follows another; entire worldviews are spun out from casual remarks dropped by supposedly representative figures. It is an unpersuasive book.
He is a more ruminative character in the earlier record, An Area of Darkness, and the book stands out to me less as a portrait of India than as the record of an encounter — a diaspora Indian “returning” to a country he imagined, an experience that repels the original image and turns his back on the self that conjured it. In the section “Fantasy and Ruins,” he comes close to articulating the source of the isolation that you mention. He details an Indian “philosophy of despair, leading to passivity, detachment, acceptance” and then identifies it as his own:
It is only now, as the impatience of the observer is dissipated in the process of writing and self-inquiry, that I see how much this philosophy had also been mine. It had enabled me, through the stresses of a long residence in England, to withdraw completely from nationality and loyalties except to persons; it had made me content to be myself alone, my work, my name (the last two so different from the first); it had convinced me that every man was an island, and taught me to shield all that I knew to be good and pure within myself from the corruption of causes.
This can be read in different ways, it seems to me. It could be a moment of awareness whose resolution is not yet ordained. In the paragraph that follows, he acknowledges the “colonial humiliation” that he did not fully recognize in Trinidad — that he could only encounter in India. And there is much acute writing later in the chapter on the omissions, silences, and repressions of 19th-century English fiction with regard to the empire.
Everywhere in Naipaul’s writing, there are routes into the political world that are diverted back into the self; humiliations that lead into humiliations of others.Tweet
But in another sense, the awareness is false, or is a half awareness — if only because we know that it became something of a credo for him, even if he often betrayed it. (About his loyalty to persons we know; his withdrawal from nationality was not so complete as he supposed.) There is something delusional about the phrase corruption of causes (one he would repeat): an anti-ideological feint that is characteristic of cold-war thinking, familiar from Nabokov, the self-regarding artist who is at pains to avoid groups, beliefs, positions. The historian Sanjay Subrahmanyam has also pointed to the legacy of neo-Hindu reformism that had taken hold in Trinidad, identifying Naipaul as in some sense a product of this larger historical process: “It was into this expatriate culture — envious of the West and its superiority, suspicious of Islam and Muslims, often with a healthy contempt for many of the practices and ‘superstitions’ of the old motherland that had been left behind — that Naipaul was born.”
Still, there is the “enabling” aspect of the writing that you mention. I carried Naipaul with me — it was the collection of reportage The Overcrowded Barracoon — on my first return trips to India as an adult, in the early 2000s (my parents had moved back for a time). It was a horrid time: the emergency measures taken after the attack on the Parliament, the tenth anniversary of the destruction of Ayodhya, the pogroms that Modi presided over in Gujarat, “India Shining,” et cetera. Over everything there was a pall of smugness and self-satisfaction, this feeling that the country was at last shaking off the accumulated centuries of dispossession to achieve itself. I could not stomach it, could not face up to it, could not feel myself to be part of the place.
Out of ignorance, I did not know what the living Naipaul thought of the situation, and so I read his early writings on India as if they were contemporary: as if they were describing the situation I saw transpiring around me. The other tonic was Arundhati Roy, whose seething book The Algebra of Infinite Justice I found in a bookshop in Bangalore. Whatever the misprision, these writings were twinned for me: they gave me the language to speak about India, a country that was not strictly mine, but that was also not not mine, that I could find my way into a sense of anger and betrayal about nonetheless. It was the beginning of political feeling. Naipaul was part of it.
In the tradition of community organizing in which I have been trained, I was taught the mode of regarding my past — any humiliations and shame and anger and privations — as something to be dug up, narrated, and ultimately politicized. Family and friends, schooling, stories from childhood: these were the source not just of politics, but the obstacles to politics — behaviors that keep one from organizing, that keep from one power and solidarity. Everywhere in Naipaul’s writing, there are routes into the political world that are diverted back into the self; humiliations that lead into humiliations of others. “These people want to break my spirit,” he wrote in a letter to his first wife, Patricia Hale, describing the British. “They want me to forget my dignity as a human being. They want me to know my place.” This could have been the beginning of an entirely different trajectory. The result instead was — and this is to tell only part of it — the terrible humiliation of his wife and the abuse he meted out to Margaret Gooding. Nothing can excuse it. But I think Naipaul was often trying to find just such an excuse, without ever examining what he was doing, and to whom.
I have often thought of Naipaul alongside the great Kenyan master Ngugi wa Thiong’o. Perhaps it is because two of their important nonfiction books have opposing titles: Naipaul’s Finding the Center, Ngugi’s Moving the Centre. But Ngugi, himself a fierce critic of the postcolonial state, the compromises of its leaders, and the corruption of its society, found his way to a different sort of intransigence: a Maoist approach to the novel form, written in a subaltern language that had no tradition in the novel. He called for the abolition of English departments — the sort that would eventually find room for Naipaul (as well as Ngugi’s own early work). He found himself forced into exile, and then in various positions at American universities. The closeness of Ngugi to the university mirrors Naipaul’s distance from it — just as scholars were developing new ways of coming to terms with postcolonial societies, Naipaul was increasingly marking his remove. I recognize the impulse, but it captures another aspect of the thinness of his analytic mode late in life, and the nature of the reception he garnered: as if, far from the political strictures of academia, he alone could see the truth. It was another cost of his isolation, with deleterious consequences for him and the discourse he contributed to.
You are right: Naipaul did not seek this role of the uniquely positioned reporter on the third world. He found himself in it, and much of his complicated and tormented relationship with his subjects was bleached out, especially in his writings on Muslim countries. This has at least partly to do with the Anglo-American (and very un-Continental) cult of the no-bullshit, empiricist intellectual — the man who exposes himself to unpleasant or dangerous reality and tells the truth about it, using the clearest of prose. Orwell was the first great figure in this pantheon of cold-war liberalism, and what Raymond Williams said about him in Culture and Society could also be applied to Naipaul.
It is worth quoting Williams on Orwell at length:
He is genuinely baffling until one finds the key to the paradox, which I will call the paradox of the exile. For Orwell was one of a significant number of men who, deprived of a settled way of living, or of a faith, or having rejected those which were inherited, find virtue in a kind of improvised living, and in an assertion of independence. The tradition, in England, is distinguished. It attracts to itself many of the liberal virtues: empiricism, a certain integrity, frankness. It has also, as the normally contingent virtue of exile, certain qualities of perception: in particular, the ability to distinguish inadequacies in the groups which have been rejected. It gives, also, an appearance of strength, although this is largely illusory. The qualities, though salutary, are largely negative; there is an appearance of hardness (the austere criticism of hypocrisy, complacency, self-deceit), but this is usually brittle, and at times hysterical: the substance of community is lacking, and the tension, in men of high quality, is very great .
Williams then goes on to define Orwell as a vagrant, and tries to understand the nature of his appeal, and this applies to Naipaul as well:
Orwell, in different parts of his career, is both exile and vagrant . The vagrant, in literary terms, is the “reporter,” and, where the reporter is good, his work has the merits of novelty and a certain specialized kind of immediacy. The reporter is an observer, an intermediary: it is unlikely that he will understand, in any depth, the life about which he is writing (the vagrant from his own society, or his own class, looking at another, and still inevitably from the outside). But a restless society very easily accepts this kind of achievement .
I think mainstream intellectual cultures in cold-war America and Britain in the ’70s and ’80s were prone to accept very easily Naipaul’s reporting and analysis of Asia, Africa, and Latin America. It was so much easier to warm to a writer who downplayed the profound damage imperialism inflicted on many non-Western societies; almost entirely ignored the two world wars, genocide, slavery, the many crises of capitalism, and other self-inflicted calamities of European and American societies; warned against the glamor of victimhood; and claimed that the failures of Asians and Africans were largely the result of their own intellectual confusion and political incompetence. It of course also helped that a large part of Naipaul’s nonfiction is infused with Western assumptions of modernization theory, and notions of individual responsibility and private entrepreneurship that were subsequently sacralized by the Reagan-Thatcher revolution in the 1980s. Remarkably, these decades when Naipaul became the prime witness to the third world’s abortive modernization were also the time when a range of writers and scholars were breaking with dominant Western modes of knowledge and offering new epistemologies — from Lévi-Strauss and Syed Hussein Alatas to Ashis Nandy and Samir Amin and, of course, Ngugi. But their insights were yet to be absorbed — and still are — in mainstream discourse.
Naipaul’s reputation as a bold truth teller about the postcolonial world peaked around 1981, with Among the Believers, just as postcolonial studies got underway with the publication of Edward Said’s Orientalism. Naipaul’s response to this intellectual revolution, which focused attention on how the “East” had been misrepresented, and how many intellectuals came to be complicit with imperial power, was to pretend not to have heard of Said, deliberately mispronounce his name, and claim that the postcolonial academy generates a lot of “babble.” The latter charge was of course not without truth — Said himself complained about some of his unreadable disciples — but it took a great deal of intellectual obtuseness to deny the pathbreaking work of many historians and anthropologists, such as those identified as members of the Subaltern Studies Group.
Naipaul’s own reputation began to split: postcolonial academia took a far more skeptical view of him than the New York Review of Books or the New Yorker. The literary value of Naipaul’s work did not diminish, but his reportage now had to coexist with, and often be challenged by, more rigorous and sustained scholarship in academia. For instance, it was too easy for a historian trained in the academy to point out that Naipaul’s analytical framework in India: A Wounded Civilization was a particularly lurid cliché of colonialist historiography — Muslim invaders wounding Hindu India — and that he was naively projecting into the inhabitants of the 10th century a very modern and deeply politicized idea of who is a Hindu or Muslim. Said brutally dismantled the central argument of Beyond Belief: that converts to Islam are a uniquely damaged people.
There remains, of course, the myth of Naipaul.Tweet
All this did not matter much outside academia, especially in mainstream Anglo-American journalism, where Naipaul’s reputation was secure and his corrosive view of Muslim societies, amplified by people like Bernard Lewis, had many more takers than anything written by Said. But even for writers like me, who felt greatly enabled by Naipaul, and who were writing for the mainstream and not academia, it felt imperative to develop a very different method. As I said before, An Area of Darkness was for me a bracing shock, just as his essays were for you — living in a small town, surrounded by all the absurdities and cruelties of Indian society, I had simply not realized that they could be written about in this stringent way, or that my own experience could be described so uncannily well. The book liberated me as a writer. At the same time, I could not write like Naipaul — could not visit the Iranian Revolution, for instance, have a series of fascinating individual encounters, and draw vivid tableaux, but fail to discuss the shah’s regime. There was no way I could go to Kashmir and not write about the Indian military occupation of the valley. I had to engage with its political and economic realities, often through the work of other writers. I could not pretend to be this singular, omniscient observer — the exile, the vagrant, the reporter — who takes accurate readings of society simply by showing up and talking to a few people, and then judges them for having failed to modernize/Westernize/Indianize sufficiently.
Time, too, was passing. Naipaul’s last substantial work, A Way in the World, was published in 1994. His major work was done by the late 1980s — thirty years ago. He had no second wind like Philip Roth or John le Carré, and he became known to younger readers largely for some outlandish public pronouncements. His reputation briefly flowered after September 11, when cold-war liberalism made its last attempt to define itself against a formidable enemy — political Islam — but has been in rapid decline since. Reading Naipaul today, one would have very little sense of why the United States — in which he placed his hope for a universal civilization devoted to the pursuit of individual happiness — is the way it is today. There remains, of course, the myth of Naipaul. “A writer,” he himself wrote, “is in the end not his books, but his myth,” and “that myth is in the keeping of others.” What is the myth of Naipaul, who maintains it today, and can it survive our tumultuous present? It certainly can’t serve any progressive politics — young socialists and feminists in America and Britain are unlikely to have any time for the man who depicted socialists as frauds and claimed that women writers were inferior to him. Unlike many writers with ugly prejudices against women and minorities, Naipaul failed to finesse his public persona. The myth of Naipaul today is largely in the keeping of middle-aged white male liberals and neoconservatives — people seeking ideological validation as the world in which they exercised unchallenged hegemony fades away. After Naipaul’s death, a New York Times writer hailed him as a great defender of “Western civilization” and quoted liberally from a speech of his to a right-wing think tank in New York in 1990. But we know that Western civilization today does not need stout defenders so much as critical interpreters — and here Naipaul does not provide much illumination, having insisted throughout, with very few and muted reservations, that the West was best.
There is a question that stands out to me in our correspondence, regarding the nature of the knowledge that a writer like Naipaul provides. As a traveler, he came to rely on the idea of immediate experience, of an analysis born from personal encounters with exemplary individuals, whose speech exuded the symptoms of some civilizational malady. He came strenuously to deny the extraordinary prejudices he brought to the enterprise, and to conflate the ideological traps his subjects and characters fell into with a suspicion of all ideology — to imagine it as pure illusion.
This was part of his appeal to some. Joan Didion’s defense of Naipaul on this score is typical: “He is a writer for whom the theoretical has no essential application, for whom a theory or an ideology is superficial to the phenomenon it attempts to describe, something no more than a scaffolding, something to be ‘erected’ or ‘demolished’; something ‘imposed’ (a word Naipaul often uses in relation to ideas) on the glitter of the sea, the Congo clogged with hyacinth, the actual world.” This is a sour brief in favor of anti-intellectualism, not unknown in Didion’s own work (the resonances between the two are striking; they developed very similar kinds of writing in isolation), and it unintentionally captures the failings of Naipaul as well as a more interesting aspect of his work, especially demonstrated in his novels. He was suspicious of the postcolonial national idea, and showed us nations that could not integrate the diverse populations they housed: nations that would elevate some and subject others. It is thus — perhaps against the grain — that the aphorism from The Mimic Men, “Hate oppression; fear the oppressed,” can be read. What we used to call the third world had been ransacked by colonialism (“oppression”); but some of the leaders and forces that emerged (“the oppressed”) approached the task of decolonization with blindness, venality, and worse.
The foundational mistake was not to suspect the same of the West, something he was in a position to do; he may have come close in the writings on the imperialist imagination in An Area of Darkness, and, more obliquely, in the estranged countryside of The Enigma of Arrival. (Admittedly, to call it a mistake is to euphemize, since it seemed essential to the coherence of his world.) The Western figures who populate Naipaul’s midperiod novels are fantasists of a more palpable sort than the naifs of Greene or le Carré; one has the sensation, as a person of color, of listening in, as it were, on a private discourse. The dialogue of Bobby and Linda barreling through a disintegrating country in In a Free State (“She said, ‘If I weren’t English I think I would like to be a Masai. So tall, those women. So elegant’”) has all the disturbing glibness, the insouciance with which Westerners still think of the countries of the South, to the extent that they think of them, with whose fates they can forever be unconcerned. There is an elective affinity between these narratives and those of the rageful midperiod Ngugi, who excoriates the Kenyan bourgeoisie, with their golf clubs and other ersatz re-creations of the colonial world they once abjured. There is a good deal of this in Naipaul, and in the end too little of it.
When Naipaul received a knighthood, the cycle of humiliation made its final turn. He praised the universal civilization that granted him one of its highest, most nostalgic honors. There was the heir to Conrad and Dickens — Dickens who proposed, in response to Indian killings during the 1857 rebellion, “I should do my utmost to exterminate the Race upon whom the stain of the late cruelties rested” — receiving the sign of grace from the queen of the United Kingdom and the other Commonwealth realms.
It is the nature of the societies we live in never to let you forget your luck, to point to any individual success as a sign of those societies’ ultimate justice, to make your rage against them seem like ingratitude. In the end, to an extent that I find debilitating, Naipaul was grateful. I know that the feelings of personal injury and grievance that arise in recalling these fundamental aspects of his life and art are disabling. Such feelings might one day be transmuted into something different: a necessary distance. But I have yet to manage it.
Perhaps it is because I linger with his observations of places and people for whom developing societies had no use — injured, abused, discarded, futureless — and think of Naipaul as one of the first to notice, one of the few for whom these could be the subject of literature. As in the unprompted glimpse of a cabdriver in the “Traveller’s Prelude” to An Area of Darkness, on the docks in Alexandria:
Not far away, below a lamp standard, stood a lone cab. It had been there since the late afternoon; it had withdrawn early from the turmoil around the terminal. It had had no fares, and there could be no fares for it now. The cab-lamp burned low; the horse was eating grass from a shallow pile on the road. The driver, wrapped against the wind, was polishing the dully gleaming hood of his cab with a large rag. The polishing over, he dusted; then he gave the horse a brief, brisk rub down. Less than a minute later he was out of his cab again, polishing, dusting, brushing. He went in; he came out . His actions were compulsive. The animal chewed; his coat shone; the cab gleamed. And there were no fares.
Yes, I can think of many episodes in Naipaul’s writing where, reminded of his own experience of poverty and insecurity, he moves to a compassionate understanding of the insulted and the injured. There is a moment in India: A Million Mutinies Now when he is visiting poor Muslims in a frequent setting for anti-Muslim violence in Bombay and suddenly achieves an insight into what many liberals too dismissively call “identity politics.” He begins to feel that “if I had been in their position, confined to Bombay, to that area, to that row, I too would have been a passionate Muslim. . . . I knew that . . . the grimmer things became, the more you insisted on being what you were.”
There is an even more unexpected moment in Among the Believers when he can plausibly be read as outlining Islam’s creative potential: “I could see how Islamic fervour could become more than a matter of prayers and postures, could become creative, revolutionary, and take men on to a humanism beyond religious doctrine: a true renaissance, open to the new and enriched by it, as the Muslims in their early days of glory had been.” I suppose Naipaul was enthused by a similar possibility about Hindu nationalism when he approved of its “passion.”
As we seem to be reaching the end of this exchange, let me try to sum up my thoughts. I have been critical of Naipaul’s weakness for such obviously lethal projects as Hindu supremacism, but I also think it partly reflects what is by any measure the most interesting aspect of his work: the acute tension between his attraction to the “early days of glory” of Islam and Hinduism and his staunch belief that convergence with the modern West is the only plausible and desirable option for non-Western societies.
In retrospect, his analysis of the failings of postcolonial states and societies does not seem unique; it could seem unprecedented only in the West’s intellectually underresourced and politically partisan mainstream press. Naxalite and Dalit movements in India, for example, had further-reaching critiques of what went wrong with the newly independent states and their elites. But they were not likely to be published by the New York Times or Knopf, and Joan Didion wouldn’t have come across them. Your quote from her reminds us of the very provincial and self-regarding intellectual culture of cold-war liberalism (which is struggling to make sense of Trump right now) and the fact that cold-war liberals warmed to anyone who attributed ideological — and therefore suspect — motives to those they deemed illiberal (or knew little about), while claiming perfect rationality for the free world, along with aesthetic and moral superiority.
Naipaul was indeed vehement, as you say, in his rejection of the white colonialist romance with Asia and Africa. He certainly wasn’t an apologist for imperialism — an accusation many of his left-leaning critics level against him. And I think his critique, however sporadic or fleeting, of the self-seeking white savior still holds, and has become more pertinent. But the most fascinating aspects of Naipaul’s work are the recessed repudiations of secular liberalism and the openness to other human possibilities — those that do not stress individual ambition and achievement and are not obsessed with securing “glory.” There is his regard for Gandhi, after all, the man who dismissed modern Western civilization as a “good idea” — a regard that grows throughout Naipaul’s life, and manages to overcome his distrust of religious figures. One can also find instances in Naipaul’s writings of his attraction to premodern peoples, who in his imagination had the virtue of wholeness and a noninstrumental relationship with nature. (When I pointed them out, he told me that this was the most neglected side of his work.)
These contradictory commitments also marked the first generation of Asian thinkers and writers. One of Naipaul’s spiritual peers, I have often thought, is Lu Xun, someone who despaired of his countrymen’s uncritical adherence to tradition but was attentive to its creative potential, and who while exhorting a full embrace of modernity was deeply skeptical of its possibilities of liberation. Perhaps it is this Janus-faced self of Naipaul’s, rather than the one-dimensional Western supremacist beloved of white liberals and conservatives (and loathed by the progressive left), that will reward intellectual inquiry in the future. It certainly matches our own ambiguous experience — and that of many others in the age of rapid mobility and profound psychological disorientation — of several different, clashing worlds. Naipaul’s uncommonly divided life, work, and legacy tell us that though we may think that we write or speak out of our own experience, the meanings we impose on it are not secure or stable, and this experience, manifold and complex by nature, will always overflow the stern categories in which we seek to imprison it.