Latest Readings - Clive James (2015)

Naipaul’s Nastiness

A MODERNIZING force embattled against his own background, V. S. Naipaul is the Kemal Ataturk of the Indian subcontinent. He has always wanted the Indian culture that he came from—by way of Trinidad—to be modernized, if necessary out of existence. Or so, for most of his life, he seemed to say. He rousingly, and wittily, declared himself against the caste system, but in his later days he often proved that he was still an unreconstructed Brahmin: once, at his home in London, a workman wanted his help in opening a window, and Naipaul telephoned his wife at her place of work to tell her that he was being disturbed, and could she come home immediately because there was manual labor to be done. Or so the legend goes: with him there are always legends, increasingly boosted, in the autumn of patriarchy, by his own testimony. He behaved like an autocrat to his women, and in 2008 he cooperated with a biography saying that he did. Throughout his writing career, some of his most entertaining stuff has been written in contempt of the backwardness of the culture from which his family fought to emerge. He can be hilarious about just how little cleaning an Indian cleaner gets done when cleaning the steps of a government building, but perhaps the hilarity would be less hilarious if you were an Indian. Nevertheless, we read Naipaul for his fastidious scorn, not for his large heart. Like the comparably great Nirad Chaudhuri, he is supreme for his style as a writer in English, not for his profundity as an Indian thinker. His self-taught father—a minor local journalist in many ways even more admirable than his relatively privileged son—had shared the same priorities, if not the same talent. In a handsome Vintage paperback which I collared from Hugh’s bookstall, Between Father and Son collects the correspondence between the two men during the years when young Vidia was in Oxford, a scholarship boy like any other, except that he was an Indian. His father, his mother, and all his close relatives expected regular letters from him. This demand he did his best to supply, without even hinting that he had essays to write for his tutors and it would be a blessing if he could relax in his spare hours. But the real measure of his stifling family context was given by what happened when a letter to him from an English girlfriend mistakenly got sent to Trinidad. It was immediately opened. The whole family read it and made comments. He was unable adequately to express his dismay. Later on he would get better at expressing it, but that was how his invigorating apostasy began: in the very aspects of close family life that seem to us so enviable, but which would have suffocated us had they been our own fate.

With these beginnings of his glittering career in mind, I have taken down from my shelves a copy of his Literary Occasions that I bought in New York in 2004, in the days when I could scarcely visit the Strand bookshop without spending a thousand dollars. (By the time the parcels of books reached London I had forgotten what was in them, so the whole deal worked out like Christmas squared.)

One of the occasions is a wonderful essay about Conrad, called “Conrad’s Darkness and Mine.”

Naipaul talks about Conrad’s analysis of the colonial experience. In doing so, Naipaul talks about his own colonial experience. And in reading Naipaul on that subject, I am faced with my colonial experience, and brought to realize how complex it has all been, this birth, growth, and breaking up of an empire. And most of it happened so abruptly. After a few hundred years’ practice in subjugating Ireland, the British subjugated most of the world in the blinking of an eye. Now there is nothing left except a language, a golden coach, and a few pipers marching and countermarching in the courtyard of Edinburgh castle. Eventually we might even have to say goodbye to Scotland, and there will be nothing of the old imperial world left except ten square yards of sand in Belize. Naipaul at his best, as a writer of factual narrative, gives you the sense that the language itself is the imperial inheritance that matters. Whether I shall read A House for Mr Biswas again remains to be seen. More than fifty years ago it filled me with admiration, but reminded me too much of the house where I was born.