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The Masque of V.S. Naipaul

The 2010-2011 BABEL SERIES of lectures by and discussions with leading international authors opened Tuesday evening in Kleinhans Music Hall with a talk by the writer many readers and critics take to be one of the greatest English language novelists of the last half century.

Sir Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul (shorn of its honorific, that's V.S. Naipaul on the bookshelf) is the 1971 Booker Prize and 2001 Nobel Prize-winning Indo-Trinidadian author of A House for Mr. Biswas (1961), In a Free State (1971), A Bend in the River (1979), The Enigma of Arrival (1987) and nearly 30 other titles that have made him one of most admired English prose stylists since Conrad, the great chronicler of the post-colonial experience in the Caribbean, Africa, and the Indian subcontinent, and a major voice on the rootlessness of the "foreigner" in a Western society.

Owing to what is perceived by some readers as his persistent cultural pessimism, broad criticisms of Islam and the "half-made societies" of the developing world, perceived insensitivities and biases concerning race, ethnicity, and social class in his work, and a decidedly untidy personal life, he is also considered one of the most complicated and controversial figures in the contemporary literary world.

Much of that untidiness was well documented in Patrick French's National Book Critics Circle Award-winning The World Is What It Is: The Authorized Biography of V. S. Naipaul (Random House, 2008) --a book that took its title from the first line of A Bend in the River ("The world is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it") -- which depicts Naipaul as a brilliant and uncompromising writer, but also as a thoroughly "tormented and tormenting" literary subject.

That "tormented" Sir Vidiadhar was nowhere in evidence in his appearance in Kleinhans on Tuesday night. Indeed the frail, but clear-voiced 78-year-old author seemed positively genial and (as one written questioner noted) downright avuncular in talking and answering questions about his work. Now on a brief U.S. tour in support of his newly released The Masque of Africa: Glimpses of African Belief (Knopf) -- another of his nonfiction travel narratives, in this case in search of the vestiges of traditional (i.e., pre-Abrahamic) "earth religions" of central and south Africa -- he seemed more animated when discussing this current book than when revisiting books he had authored in the past.

Although he seemed genuinely pleased and grateful that the book the BABEL series readership had chosen to focus upon was his "breakthrough" novel A House for Mr. Biswas ("It’s worried me for some time that people look at my later works and ignore this, which I consider my best book, actually”), his subsequent comments on the book were not particularly illuminating.
In marked contrast to many previously published and recorded interviews about the book, including this December 2003 interview on the BBC Worldwide Service, Naipaul repeatedly referred to the book's length (“When a book is so big, you find there’s nothing you can say about it. You feel ashamed to add to its length”) as a reason to avoid discussing it in this context, and quoted Graham Greene, whom he once interviewed, to the effect that he had written the book so long ago, he could no longer recall much about it. 
In the past, he has spoken and written extensively about the book, particularly in context of his own upbringing in a small town in Trinidad in a family of Indian Brahmin origin, and with reference to his father, Seepersad, a short story writer and correspondent for the Trinidad Guardian, upon whom his protagonist Mohun Biswas is loosely based.  The elder Naipaul died of a heart attack in 1953 while his son was away at Oxford University in England.   Nearly a half century after its publication, A House for Mr. Biswas remains perhaps Naipaul's most popular and deftly tragicomic novel, and the one in which the author has seemingly the most invested emotionally in his characters.
Over the years, Naipaul has been taken to task by such prominent writers and intellectuals as the late Edward Said for his "orientalism" and condemnation of Islam in his 1981 book Among the Believers, previous BABEL Series guest Chinua Achebe for his earlier books about Africa A Congo Diary and the novel A Bend in the River ("I do admire Mr. Naipaul, but I am rather sorry for him. He is too distant from a viable moral centre; he withholds his humanity; he seems to place himself under a self-denying ordinance, as it were, suppressing his genuine compassion for humanity. His style is all too perfect, steel-bright, metallic..."), and fellow Nobel Prize winner (and previous BABEL Series guest) Derek Walcott, who famously criticized Naipaul's "chronic disspiritedness" and has referred to him "V. S. Nightfall."
Naipaul has even alienated former friends like Salman Rushdie, who has grown increasingly wary of his right-wing politics (especially his support of extremist elements of Hindu nationalism) and his former close friend Paul Theroux, who after writing the widely-circulated V.S. Naipaul: An Introduction to His Work in 1972, found himself rebuffed by the writer he regarded as a mentor for over three decades. Theroux's eye-opening account of their falling out was published as Sir Vidia's Shadow: A Friendship across Five Continents (1998) and staked out much of the territory Patrick French would revisit in his biography.
When Just Buffalo Literary Center artistic director Michael Kelleher -- who did an admirable job of interviewing Naipaul and selecting and presenting audience questions -- asked a carefully phrased question about the degree of access into his personal life and papers he granted Patrick French as his biographer, many of us in the audience were surprised by the unflinching directness of the author's response. "It was great mistake," Naipaul conceded immediately, adding that he granted French such a degree of access with the implicit understanding that "certain private matters would remain private."  He declined to comment on the biography per se.
A few minutes later, when one audience question Kelleher read aloud asked "Are you a misanthrope?" Naipaul paused for a beat and then chortled heartily. The audience laughed with him. The questions continued.
When asked on Tuesday night for his thoughts about globalization, Naipaul averred that he had little interest in abstract questions. His steadfast resistance to the canon of liberal orthodoxy on many economic, political and social issues seems as much a function of his stubbornness, iconoclasm, and conviction that his writing, in its specificity and precision, can arrive at some "essential truth" about the human condition as it does to some rigorously applied ideology.
In his 2001 Nobel Prize in Literature Lecture, Naipaul wrote:
"Everything of value about me is in my books. Whatever extra there is in me at any given moment isn't fully formed. I am hardly aware of it; it awaits the next book. It will – with luck – come to me during the actual writing, and it will take me by surprise. That element of surprise is what I look for when I am writing... . I have trusted to intuition. I did it at the beginning. I do it even now. I have no idea how things might turn out, where in my writing I might go next. I have trusted to my intuition to find the subjects, and I have written intuitively. I have an idea when I start, I have a shape; but I will fully understand what I have written only after some years...
...I said earlier that everything of value about me is in my books. I will go further now. I will say I am the sum of my books. Each book, intuitively sensed and, in the case of fiction, intuitively worked out, stands on what has gone before, and grows out of it. I feel that at any stage of my literary career it could have been said that the last book contained all the others...
...I have always moved by intuition alone. I have no system, literary or political. I have no guiding political idea. I think that probably lies with my ancestry. The Indian writer R K Narayan, who died this year, had no political idea. My father, who wrote his stories in a very dark time, and for no reward, had no political idea. Perhaps it is because we have been far from authority for many centuries. It gives us a special point of view. I feel we are more inclined to see the humour and pity of things...
...I am near the end of my work now. I am glad to have done what I have done, glad creatively to have pushed myself as far as I could go. Because of the intuitive way in which I have written, and also because of the baffling nature of my material, every book has come as a blessing. Every book has amazed me; up to the moment of writing I never knew it was there. But the greatest miracle for me was getting started. I feel – and the anxiety is still vivid to me - that I might easily have failed before I began.
Perhaps the most self-revealing passage Naipaul has ever written about his work was about his 1967 novel The Mimic Men:
This new fiction was about colonial shame and fantasy, a book, in fact, about how the powerless lie about themselves, and lie to themselves, since it is their only resource. The book was called The Mimic Men. And it was not about mimics. It was about colonial men mimicking the condition of manhood, men who had grown to distrust everything about themselves. Some pages of this book were read to me the other day - I hadn't looked at it for more than thirty years - and it occurred to me that I had been writing about colonial schizophrenia. But I hadn't thought of it like that. I had never used abstract words to describe any writing purpose of mine. If I had, I would never have been able to do the book. The book was done intuitively, and only out of close observation.
Of all the major figures in world literature to visit Buffalo in the BABEL SERIES -- a series, we might add, that is very much in peril as it enters its fourth season, given the removal of both series co-sponsors Just Buffalo Literary Center and Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center from Erie County Executive Collins' proposed operating budget for next year -- Naipaul is almost certainly the most enigmatic and paradoxical talent of the lot. As with all the BABEL Series authors, we were fortunate to have him visit our city -- however briefly -- to prove once again that when it comes to the timeless, boundaryless conversation that is literature, this community is a full participant.
--R.D. Pohl 
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