Naipaul: the calypso rambler

The V.S. Naipaul biography (The World Is What It Is) is done, confirming the tiresome personality which has become so much of his myth. Fortunately, his biographer chose to treat the negative aspects of his personality as matter of fact; he had no choice; from Naipaul’s beginning as a teenager, it was apparent he was destined to be insecure, egocentric and cruel, seeing himself as privileged. He is impervious and unconcerned about his failings as a human being. He’s cultivated, and had it cultivated for him by others, a myth that he sacrificed all for his art, but I don’t see it that way. To say that, is to say you have no responsibility to the people around you, whether casual strangers or loved ones. He is routinely awful to too many people. About the only thing positive that can be said for his cruelty and rudeness is that he does  it to people face to face, with no pretension. There’s an element of sadism here, the small boy who enjoys torturing the weak and unsuspecting. But enough of that. “Enough,” in fact, is his biographer’s , Patrick French’s, last word in the book, which stops at 1996. In a footnote, French writes, “but more later.” It must be said, I have nothing but admiration for Naipaul’s cooperation with his biographer, allowing him full access to all his papers, etc., and in his comments to his biographer admitting his failings in so many areas regarding those who he loved and who loved him. His mother died estranged from her son. It’s one of the great tragedy’s of his life, which he didn’t comment on.

But I don’t care about Naipaul’s personality. Many people are loaded down with flaws that make them pretentious and unpleasant. But none of them, and few others in the world, can come even close to touching  Naipaul’s artistry and vision. It’s perhaps a small stretch to suggest that he changed, at least among a certain circle of intellectuals (left), the way people looked at the third world, and the so-called responsibility of the West. I read A Bend in the River when it was published in 1979 and thought it a masterpiece, which it is. It was written in the period of his great nonfiction books. I was first attracted by his nonfiction writing, which still holds me, and, because of its structure, mostly still holds together, still offering great lessons through its weaving of history, exacting details, personalities and, most essentially, Naipaul’s hardcore distrust of shibboleths and the fashionably correct. At bottom, I guess, it’s his very distrust (and lack of compassion) of other human beings for not taking greater responsibility over their lives that he uses to color his point of view regarding the West and the so-called third world or emerging nations, or the rest of the world. Anyway, his books have been a necessary corrective,  truly a monumental achievement, in the literary sense.  So now I’m reading his newest book, A Masque of Africa, which starts off with some of the most awkward prose ever written, at least the first 40 pages or so. At the same time, I’m reading his essay on Conrad in Literary Occasions. It’s as if the writing is by two different people. More on this later. There are some signs that Naipaul is mellowing a bit in old age. As his ego melts down, he’ll have much to reckon with, but he can also say  that  he’s created an unmatchable body of world-class literature. The books will stand for a long time, the rest is soon dust, and eventually the books will be too.

2 Comments on “Naipaul: the calypso rambler”

  1. Jack Steele says:

    Roy, I couldn’t agree more about A Bend in the River. Nevertheless, I think there’s a coldness in his work overall that I find off-putting and of course may be a sign of his character. For example, old lefty though I may be (manually and mentally), I admire his tough stance on the third world, but what’s missing, usually, is any sympathy at all for tradition and custom. I find that disturbing.

    • royhamric says:

      Jack, my amigo, I can only agree with you and apologize for the tentative and quick comments about the biography and Naipaul’s impact overall in both fiction and nonfiction. He’s everything you say, and for those reasons he’s cautiously and moderately embraced by almost everyone, while admitting his aspects of genius, originality and artistry. We must say too that the subjects he’s carved out are large and slippery (a little Maileresque minus the sex), and he’s one of the few writers who even tries to put finite, identifiable characters, or real people, in the largest contexts of history. Because of certain unique traits, his peculiar background and personality being the foremost, he’s original and impossible to ignore. He occupies his space. I prefer his nonfiction much more than his fiction, but I agree A Bend in the River is simply a masterpiece. –Roy

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