August 7, 2005
Copyright The New York Times
Two monuments rise like emblems from the green countryside of Wiltshire, England, not far from the secluded house of V. S. Naipaul: Stonehenge and Salisbury Cathedral. They are signposts in a landscape Naipaul has been traversing for more than half a century, one in which the impulses of culture, civilization and progress have always existed in close and uneasy proximity to the impulses of paganism, religion and disorder.
A prophet of our world-historical moment, in his more than 25 works of fiction and nonfiction, Naipaul has examined the clash between belief and unbelief, the unraveling of the British Empire, the migrations of peoples. They are natural subjects for a writer who, as he has recorded in his many fully, semi- and quasi-autobiographical books, was born in Trinidad, where his grandfather had emigrated from India as an indentured servant. His father, a newspaper reporter and aspiring fiction writer, was the model for what is arguably Naipaul’s finest novel, ”A House for Mr. Biswas” (1961). At 18, Naipaul left Trinidad on a scholarship to University College, Oxford, and has lived in England ever since. Alfred Kazin once described him as ”a colonial brought up in English schools, on English ways and the pretended reasonableness of the English mind.”
Knighted in 1990, Sir Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul is Britain’s only living Nobel laureate in literature, having been awarded the prize in October 2001, a season when many were just awakening to realities Naipaul had been writing about for more than 20 years. Also significant is that he had explored Islamic fundamentalism and other issues of global import not through fiction, but through nonfiction reportage. The novel’s time was over, he had said. Others had made the claim before, but it resonated more deeply coming from a contemporary giant. What is more, Naipaul said, only nonfiction could capture the complexities of today’s world. It was a profound observation. But did it speak to a larger cultural situation, or was it simply the personal judgment of one cantankerous writer, who in fact continued to publish a novel every few years even after declaring the form dead?
Naipaul recently offered some thoughts on the matter, in an interview in the cozy sitting room of his cottage in Wiltshire. Photograph portraits were on the mantle. French novels lined one bookshelf. The sounds of the outside world could be heard: a lawnmower, the buzzing of a fighter jet from a nearby airbase. A compact man of 72, Naipaul has been ill in recent months, and said he is not working on a book at the moment. Although it was unseasonably hot on the splendid sunny afternoon of the longest day of the year, he wore a tweed jacket and corduroy pants. Unsmiling, he settled somewhat stiffly onto a straight-backed armchair and began to chart the trajectory of his thinking.
”What I felt was, if you spend your life just writing fiction, you are going to falsify your material,” he said. ”And the fictional form was going to force you to do things with the material, to dramatize it in a certain way. I thought nonfiction gave one a chance to explore the world, the other world, the world that one didn’t know fully.” Naipaul’s voice is rich and deep and mellowed by tobacco, and when he pronounced the word ”world,” he savored it, drawing it out to almost three syllables. ”I thought if I didn’t have this resource of nonfiction I would have dried up perhaps. I’d have come to the end of my material, and would have done what a writer like Graham Greene did. You know, he took the Graham Greene figure to the Congo, took him to Argentina, took him to Haiti, for no rhyme or reason.”
Naipaul has said he wrote the novel ”Half a Life” (2001) only to fulfill a publisher’s contract, and that ”Magic Seeds” (2004) would be his last novel. (Over the years, he has often hinted at retirement, only to publish another book soon after.) Yet the fact that Naipaul has continued to write novels does not undercut his acute awareness of the form’s limitations; indeed, it amplifies it. His is the lament of a writer who, through a life devoted to his craft, has discovered that the tools at his disposal are no longer adequate. ”If you write a novel alone you sit and you weave a little narrative. And it’s O.K., but it’s of no account,” Naipaul said. ”If you’re a romantic writer, you write novels about men and women falling in love, etc., give a little narrative here and there. But again, it’s of no account.”
What is of account, in Naipaul’s view, is the larger global political situation — in particular, the clash between belief and unbelief in postcolonial societies. ”I became very interested in the Islamic question, and thought I would try to understand it from the roots, ask very simple questions and somehow make a narrative of that discovery,” he said. To what extent, he wondered, had ”people who lock themselves away in belief . . . shut themselves away from the active busy world”? ”To what extent without knowing it” were they ”parasitic on that world”? And why did they have ”no thinkers to point out to them where their thoughts and their passion had led them”? Far from simple, the questions brought a laserlike focus to a central paradox of today’s situation: that some who have benefited from the blessings of the West now seek to destroy it.
In November 2001 Naipaul told an audience of anxious New Yorkers still reeling from the attack on the World Trade Center that they were facing ”a war declared on you by people who passionately want one thing: a green card.” What happened on Sept. 11 ”was too astonishing. It’s one of its kind. It can’t happen again,” he said in our conversation. ”But in the end it has had no effect on the world. It has just been a spectacle, like a bank raid in a western film. They will be caught by the sheriff eventually.” The bigger issue, he said, is that Western Europe, while built on tolerance, today lacks ”a strong cultural life,” making it vulnerable to Islamicization. He even went so far as to say that Muslim women shouldn’t wear headscarves in the West. ”If you decide to move to another country and to live within its laws you don’t express your disregard for the essence of the culture,” he said. ”It’s a form of aggression.”
No matter how uncomfortable or debatable, there is a painful prescience to Naipaul’s observations on Islam and the West. That prescience was in evidence once again when, just two weeks after our meeting, bombers struck the London Underground and a city bus, killing more than 50 people. Naipaul was at home in Wiltshire that day, and professed no surprise that the attacks appeared to have been carried out by British citizens. ”We must stop fooling ourselves about what we are witnessing,” he said in a telephone conversation a week after the July 7 attacks. The debate in Britain about British detainees held at Guantanamo Bay was evidence of the foolishness. ”People here talk about those people who were picked up by the Americans as ‘lads,’ ‘our lads,’ as though they were people playing cricket or marbles,” Naipaul said. ”It’s glib, nonsensical talk from people who don’t understand that holy war for Muslims is a religious war, and a religious war is something you never stop fighting.”
These remarks, like so many of Naipaul’s utterances over the years, seem calculated to provoke. In his interviews as in his life, Naipaul is famously irascible, difficult, contradictory, an ideological lightning rod. Yet in his writing, he is an artist on whom nothing is lost. Naipaul addressed this split in his Nobel acceptance speech, in which he seconded Proust’s argument that ”a book is the product of a different self from the self we manifest in our habits, in our social life, in our vices.” Naipaul’s work is as subtle as his interviews are clamorous. In ”Among the Believers: An Islamic Journey,” his 1981 travelogue through the ironies and intricacies of non-Arab Islamic countries, and in its 1998 follow-up, ”Beyond Belief,” Naipaul listened seriously and empathetically to people in Iran, Pakistan, Indonesia and Malaysia: countries that were converted to Islam over the course of centuries and, in the late 70’s, witnessed a rise in both power and Islamic fundamentalism. The books raise but don’t necessarily answer deep and vexing questions: Is secularism a precondition of tolerance? Does one necessarily have to abandon one’s individual cultural and religious identity to become part of the West? Why do people willingly choose lives that restrict their intellectual freedom? What becomes of modern societies founded on Islam, whose strictest aherents long for a return to the time of Muhammad?
Like Salim, the protagonist of his classic novel ”A Bend in the River,” who describes himself as ”a man without a side,” Naipaul has cultivated political detachment. In his Nobel acceptance speech, he said: ”I have always moved by intuition alone. I have no system, literary or political. I have no guiding political idea.” This is both true and incomplete. Naipaul’s cold, unsparing look at the corruption and disarray of the postcolonial world, his disdain for Marxist liberation movements and his view that Islamic society leads to tyranny are implicitly political positions, and have made him the object of much political criticism. He has been sharply criticized by, among others, Derek Walcott, the Caribbean poet and Nobel laureate, and Chinua Achebe, the Nigerian novelist, who said ”although Naipaul was writing about Africa, he was not writing for Africans.” The scholar and critic Edward Said, who died in 2003, called ”Beyond Belief” ”an intellectual catastrophe.” Naipaul, he added, thinks ”Islam is the worst disaster that ever happened to India, and the book reveals a pathology.”
But what spares Naipaul’s work from the ideology of critics who would dismiss him as anti-Muslim and admirers who would laud him for essentially the same thing is its unsentimental, often heartbreaking detail. In ”Among the Believers,” Naipaul speaks with Mr. Jaffrey, a newspaper journalist and British-Indian-educated Shiite in Tehran who supported Khomeini as a way of bringing about the Islamic dream of a ”society of believers.” Mr. Jaffrey ate a plate of fried eggs as he spoke. In ”Beyond Belief,” Naipaul revisits one of the journalist’s colleagues, who also relishes his lunch. Ideology is abstract; fried eggs are not. Naipaul’s nonfiction has the force, the almost unbearable density of detail and the moral vision of great fiction. It comes as no surprise that Dickens and Tolstoy are his heroes. For all Naipaul’s talk about the limitations of the novel, the power of his work is ultimately rooted in a novelist’s preternatural attentiveness to individual human lives and triumphs, to the daily things we do that make us who we are, and are the key to our survival.
A breakthrough in Naipaul’s own understanding of himself as a writer and his turning away from the novel toward nonfiction came in a remarkable essay he wrote on Joseph Conrad. First published in The New York Review of Books in 1974, it appears in his 2003 collection, ”Literary Occasions.” It is not entirely surprising that Naipaul would turn to the work of the Polish émigré; both were raised in one world and willed themselves into becoming artists in another, England. ”I suppose that in my fantasy I had seen myself coming to England as to some purely literary region, where, untrammeled by the accidents of history or background, I could make a romantic career for myself as a writer,” Naipaul wrote in that essay.
”It came to me that the great novelists wrote about highly organized societies,” he wrote. ”I had no such society; I couldn’t share the assumptions of the writers; I didn’t see my world reflected in theirs. My colonial world was more mixed and secondhand, and more restricted. The time came when I began to ponder the mystery — Conradian word — of my own background.” Along the way, Naipaul kept coming up against Conrad. ”I found that Conrad — 60 years before, in the time of a great peace — had been everywhere before me,” he wrote. ”Not as a man with a cause, but a man offering . . . a vision of the world’s half-made societies as places which continuously made and unmade themselves, where there was no goal, and where always ‘something inherent in the necessities of successful action . . . carried with it the moral degradation of the idea.’ Dismal, but deeply felt: a kind of truth and half a consolation.”
Yet in our conversation, although Naipaul said he thought Conrad was ”great” because he ”wished to look very, very hard at the world,” he also insisted that Conrad ”had no influence on me.” ”Actually, I think ‘A Bend in the River’ is much, much better than Conrad,” he said. ”I think the best part of Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’ is the reportage part. The fictional part is excessive and feeble. And there is no reportage in my thing. I was looking and creating that world. I actually think the work I’ve done in that way is better than Conrad.” Naipaul also dismissed the idea there might be a direct link between his Conrad essay and subsequent works in which he explored some of the same places and themes. ”These things might appear like that. But that’s only for a person on the outside,” he said.
A different picture emerges from Naipaul’s bibliography. After the Conrad essay, Naipaul in fact followed Conrad’s itinerary to the Congo — the subject of his nonfiction essay on Mobutu, ”A New King for the Congo”(1975), and of ”A Bend in the River” (1979); and to Aceh, Indonesia, for ”Among the Believers” and ”Beyond Belief.” Naipaul has also gone where Conrad went as a narrator, cultivating a kind of finely wrought ambiguity and moving toward reportage. ”To understand Conrad,” as he wrote in his essay, ”it was necessary to begin to match his experience. It was also necessary to lose one’s preconceptions of what the novel should do and, above all, to rid oneself of the subtle corruptions of the novel or comedy of manners.”
In conversation, another dynamic becomes apparent, in which the more dismissive Naipaul is of a writer, the more likely it is that he has engaged deeply with that writer’s work. Sitting a few feet away from a bookshelf of French novels, Naipaul called Proust ”tedious,” ”repetitive,” ”self-indulgent,” concerned only with a character’s social status. ”What is missing in Proust is this idea of a moral center,” he said. Naipaul also had little respect for Joyce’s ”Ulysses” — ”the Irish book,” he sniffily called it — and other works ”that have to lean on borrowed stories.” Lately, he has found Stendhal ”repetitive, tedious, infuriating,” while ”the greatest disappointment was Flaubert.”
All this points to another idea: Modernism is over. ”We are all overwhelmed by the idea of French 19th-century culture. Everybody wanted to go to Paris to paint or to write. And of course that’s a dead idea these days,” Naipaul said. ”We’ve changed. The world has changed. The world has grown bigger.” Which brings us back to the limitations of the novel. The writer must leave the sitting room and travel abroad into the active, busy world. It is the tragic vision only a novelist can reach: that the world cannot be contained in the novel.
And yet, for all his laments, Naipaul is not invested in the notion that Western civilization is in decline. ”That’s a romantic idea,” he said brusquely. ”A civilization which has taken over the world cannot be said to be dying. . . . It’s a university idea. People cook it up at universities and do a lot of lectures about it. It has no substance.” The ”philosophical diffidence” of the West, he maintains, will prevail over the ”philosophical shriek” of those who intend to destroy it. Naipaul formulated those terms in a lecture he delivered in 1992 at the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank in New York. (Called ”Our Universal Civilization,” it appears in his 2002 essay collection, ”The Writer and the World.”) In it, he cites a remarkable passage from Conrad: ”A half-naked, betel-chewing pessimist stood upon the bank of the tropical river, on the edge of the still and immense forests; a man angry, powerless, empty-handed, with a cry of bitter discontent ready on his lips; a cry that, had it come out, would have rung through the virgin solitudes of the woods as true, as great, as profound, as any philosophical shriek that ever came from the depths of an easy chair to disturb the impure wilderness of chimneys and roofs.”
As for evidence of the diffidence: ”I think it actually is all around us. It’s all around us,” Naipaul said. But where, exactly? ”There are millions and millions of people all around us,” was all he would say. In ”India: A Million Mutinies Now” (1990), his third nonfiction book about India, Naipaul celebrated the million manifestations of daily life, of lives undefeated by the chaos, disarray and poverty of the larger society. A Hindu by birth, though not observant, Naipaul finds India a place of great hope. It is, he says, the country where belief and unbelief coexist most peaceably. The economic development of India — and China — he said, will ”completely alter the world,” and ”nothing that’s happening in the Arab world has that capacity.” Yet Naipaul called it ”a calamity” that, even with its billion people, ”there are no thinkers in India” today. India is also where he turns for a theory of history. ”The only theory is that everything is in a state of flux,” he said. This is his own ”personal idea,” he said, but one linked to a philosophical concept in Indian religion.
”I find it impossible to contain the history of Europe in my head. It’s so much movement, so much movement,” he said. ”Even when you go back to the Roman times there are these tribal groups pressing all the time, pressing and pressing and pressing,” he continued, pushing his fists together for emphasis and fixing his gaze intently at the near distance. He has recently been reading the letters of Mary Wortley Montagu, an Englishwoman who traveled across the Ottoman Empire in the 18th century. The chaos of history pressed in on the Wiltshire sitting room. ”You have this picture of the devastation the Turks had created in Hungary,” he said. ”Who ever thought that world would have changed if you were living at that time? But it has changed. And what we’re living in will of course change again.”
Dismal, but deeply felt: a kind of truth and half a consolation.
Rachel Donadio is a writer and editor at the Book Review.