Finding Eden in the streets of Streatham Hill

Literary Occasions
January 23, 2004

In 2002, when he turned 70, soon after receiving the Nobel prize for literature, V. S. Naipaul published a collection of essays, The Writer and the World . Now, a year or two later, comes a second, much slimmer collection, Literary Occasions , which includes his Nobel lecture, "Two worlds". The first book assembled Naipaul's reactions to other societies - India, "Africa and the Diaspora", and the Americas, North and South. The second is more about his ambivalent relationship with the place of his birth, Trinidad, and, to a lesser extent, the place of his maturity, England - coupled with a small selection of literary criticism, on Nirad C.

Chaudhuri, Kipling, Conrad and a few other writers. While both books are most valuable, one is forced to wonder why they were not merged into one more-or-less complete book of essays. The main consideration in publishing two volumes would appear to have been commercial. Naipaul himself is uninvolved with the books: the two contain no preface or note by him nor any unpublished work.

I had read almost all the essays before, when they first appeared in journals, as forewords to books and in Naipaul's The Overcrowded Barracoon (1972) and Finding the Centre (1984). Yet to read them again is mostly unalloyed pleasure. Having recently slogged my way through the new season's publishers' catalogues, staggering under the weight of new novels, Naipaul's well-known scepticism about the novel comes once more as a refreshing blast of honesty blowing away the miasma of hype.

In his 1999 essay, "Reading and writing, a personal account", he says: "The new novel gave 19th-century Europe a certain kind of news. The late 20th century, surfeited with news, culturally far more confused, threatening again to be as full of tribal or folk movement as during the centuries of the Roman empire, needs another kind of interpretation. But the novel, still (in spite of appearances) mimicking the programme of the 19th-century originators, still feeding off the vision they created, can subtly distort the unaccommodating new reality. As a form it is now commonplace enough, and limited enough, to be teachable. It encourages a multitude of little narcissisms, from near and far; they stand in for originality and give the form an illusion of life. It is a vanity of the age (and commercial promotion) that the novel continues to be literature's final and highest expression."

"Little narcissisms... standing in for originality" - what a perfect description of many recent Booker prizewinning novels, including the latest winner. A few years ago, in a newspaper interview at the time of the annual prize-giving, Naipaul (who won the Booker prize in 1971) referred, hilariously, to the need for a "dustman's tip" of new novels.

His disdain for contemporary fiction demands attention because he has written at least one novel, probably two, that belong in the pantheon of writing that will live as long as people read novels. I have read A House for Mr Biswas (1961) - published when its author was still in his 20s - many times, and after re-reading Naipaul's foreword to the 1983 edition, I know I will want to read the novel yet again. This foreword is perhaps the finest essay in the book; and it incidentally shows up the feebleness and redundancy of Pankaj Mishra's introduction to Literary Occasions , with its inept labelling of Mr Biswas as "the epic of the postcolonial world" and its otiose dragging in of Pushkin, a writer to whom Naipaul does not even refer in these essays. Into only seven pages, Naipaul packs a universe of feeling, seamlessly integrating art and autobiography, using language of exquisite truthfulness and simplicity. "Often, out in the Streatham Hill streets, momentarily away from the book, shopping perhaps, I thought: 'If someone were to offer me a million pounds on condition that I leave the book unfinished, I would turn the money down.'... The two years spent on this novel in Streatham Hill remain the most consuming, the most fulfilled, the happiest years of my life. They were my Eden."

Although A House for Mr Biswas is a comedy, and most of Naipaul's early stories are comic, comedy has increasingly deserted his writing - to the regret of both himself and his readers. It is good to be reminded by these essays, especially the ones written in the 1960s, of how witty he can be while remaining serious. In "East Indian", for instance, discussing the late-19th-century immigration to the Caribbean of indentured labourers from India such as his immediate ancestors, he writes: "In the British territories the immigrants were called East Indians. In this way they were distinguished from the two other types of Indians in the islands: the American Indians and the West Indians. After a generation or two, the East Indians were regarded as settled inhabitants of the West Indies and were thought of as West Indian East Indians. Then a national feeling grew up.

There was a cry for integration, and the West Indian East Indians became East Indian West Indians."

He is witty, too, about another postcolonial writer, Chaudhuri, also with a reputation for wit, who in his 70s exiled himself from India and settled in England, where he went on to publish several more books and receive an honorary doctorate from Oxford University. Naipaul greatly admired Chaudhuri's first and famous book, The Autobiography of an Unknown Indian - "[it] may be the one great book to have come out of the Indo-English encounter" - but not Chaudhuri's later work. (When Chaudhuri died in 1999, aged 101, Naipaul even began an obituary with the scathing words: "Nirad Chaudhuri was an old fool.") In "The last of the Aryans", he pinpoints, if sympathetically, the crippling limitations of Chaudhuri's vision, as expressed in The Continent of Circe . "The absurd thing is that in India Aryan racial pride still has point; in Europe it has little. Of this pride Chaudhuri's book might be seen as the latest expression."

True. But Naipaul misses something important about the later Chaudhuri: foolish and opinionated about India as a whole he may often have been, yet he was exceptionally knowledgeable, truthful and accurate about his own people, the Bengalis. Naipaul, who seems to feel something of Kipling's antipathy for the Bengali babu , does not fully grasp this. For him, Chaudhuri is ultimately an example of the "futility... of the 19th-century Anglo-Bengali culture". It is too sweeping a generalisation. While Bengal has indeed lost its way during the decades of Naipaul's career, its tradition of "Anglo-Bengali" culture, beginning with Rammohan Roy, flowering with Rabindranath Tagore and fruiting with Satyajit Ray, should not be so easily dismissed (Naipaul's admiration for Ray's films notwithstanding). Unfortunately, the language barrier will always get in the way of a true appreciation of Bengali culture. While it was possible for Naipaul eventually to "come round to" Conrad, as he explains in "Conrad's darkness and mine", his deep and fascinating meditation on Conrad's life and work, because Conrad, despite his Polish background, wrote in English, the best of Bengali culture will likely forever remain an occluded book for the wider world.

Andrew Robinson is literary editor, The THES .

Literary Occasions: Essays

Author - V. S. Naipaul
Publisher - Picador
Pages - 203
Price - £16.99
ISBN - 0 330 42022 4

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