William Boyd has an excellent article on Naipaul's latest here.
Boyd draws a parallel between Waugh and Naipaul which admirers of the former might find puzzling. Waugh was funny, he wrote like an angel, his irony so perfect it verges on theodicy.
Naipaul's books simply aren't in the same category. I suppose the argument could be made that Naipaul- considered as a colored man, paid for jeering at colored people- can without impropriety be called a colored Waugh on the principle that you can call a nig-nog anything.
But this is an argument that tends not to be made in my presence- the fact is, though my cheeks display tints of peaches and cream, this is only because I'm a messy eater. Long years in London have not altered my complexion. Furthermore, just to be clear, I'm not setting myself up to be Naipaul's successor and so, absent a sufficient monetary inducement, I can't put forward this argument myself because, it seems to me, Waugh saw himself as part of one great indivisible Civilizing force at the center of things.
There can't be a colored Waugh any more than there can be a Black Catholicism as opposed to a White Catholicism.
Yet, to my mind, there is a connection- less a case of artistic genealogy than its proctologically inartistic inverse- between Waugh and Naipaul. What that is, I will reveal at the end of this blog post.
First, let me come clean and admit that the only reason I consider Naipaul to be important is because I am a Hindu. Why does Naipaul's religion- unlike Ved Mehta's or Niradh Chaudhri's- matter to me?
Well, Naipaul came to writing- it seems to me- out of a sense of filial piety. His father, Shivprasad, had gained a little education and his writing talent had gotten him a job as a reporter. Hoping to benefit people of his own background- i.e. Hindu agriculturists in the backwaters- Shivprasad allied himself with Indian Reformist movements so as to combat social evils amongst his erstwhile peers hoping to put them on the same path to progress as the brown converts to Presbyterianism and the urban Afro-Caribbeans.
Perhaps the young man adopted too shrill a tone, or perhaps people felt he was getting too big for his boots- the upshot was that his life was threatened. He had to make an ignominious recantation- my memory is a goat was sacrificed to Kali or something of that sort- and suffered a nervous breakdown in consequence- one morning he looked in the mirror and could no longer see his own face.
I mention this because it was under somewhat similar circumstances that my grand-father (who was fond of quoting the patriotic writings of Swami Vivekananda in a hilarious Bengali accent) was forced to sodomize the equestrian statute of Sir Mark Cubbon as part of a Hindu College hazing ritual- one which, like the practice of Suttee amongst Supremos of the Congress party, the benighted partisans of 'Hindutva' and the so called 'Sangh Parivar' secretly encourage to this day- a fact seldom mentioned by the supposedly 'Liberal' media.
Like Naipaul, I too have written books about India. Indeed, my last novel 'Samlee's daughter' stands shoulder to shoulder with Naipaul's books on the vexed question of the proper attitude to the fair sex- we both agree that Hindus must abandon chivalry for artillery- though I must admit I haven't yet worked myself up to actually dealing out blows to the little dears, considering it prudent to confine myself to chucking my teddy bear in their general direction before bursting into hysterical tears..
Like Naipaul, I too revere Mahatma Gandhi- a strenuous wife-beater of the best type- and identify with him- though my literary output is less voluminous- precisely because he too returned to India with fresh eyes and could see things which had become invisible to the natives. Simple things. Don't shit all over the place. Carry a spade with you and cover up your feces. As for this business of swinging from tree to tree eating bananas and hanging by your tails- that's got to stop. Granted the tourists like it- but I'm more than just a tourist- my ancestors came from India- so just fucking stop your monkey tricks already. You guys are making me look bad.
Returning to Shivprasad, it is comforting to think of him- like Mr.Biswas, in Naipaul's best novel- finding consolation in Marcus Aurelius and Samuel Simles. The rigor and majesty of the Latin Stoic- albeit in translation- and the homely message of the Victorian writer, may have given this very talented young man the courage to persevere rather than simply drown himself in rum or slink off to Venezuela.
Shivprasad's own English style was lively and adventurous and suffused with excellent observational humor and shrewd journalistic touches. But it wasn't the chastened prose of a University Graduate. It is tempting to envision Shivprasad, with Roman piety, passing on the torch to the young Naipaul- the torch in question being the notion that writing should serve a social purpose while simultaneously acting as a Stoic askesis, a spiritual and character building praxis, such that the writer doesn't end up simply battering his brains out against Civic walls but, Antaeus like, gains a renewed strength by judiciously alternating the target of his head-butts with the rocky breast of mother earth or some other such abstraction.
This, it seems to me, is not an ignoble project. It has special relevance to the middle aged blogger or small time columnist of low intelligence and narrow interests, who needs to beat his or her toy drum from time to time simply to find an outlet for the sort of nursery scoldings which, before the kids flew the coop, appeased one's paternal or maternal instincts.
After all, one could do worse- join some bunch of hate-mongering hooligans or write poetry or something.
Naipaul won a scholarship to Oxford at a very young age. He did not lack in filial piety. He wasn't a shy and withdrawn fellow but a witty and enterprising young man. His success seemed assured.
Naipaul's sister got a scholarship to Benares Hindu University. If the 'backwardness' of the Trinidad Hindoo was because they had been cut off from contact with the mother continent, then Naipaul's sister had that base covered.
Except of course, as that enterprising young woman swiftly realized, Benares had nothing to teach and everything to learn- except, that is, for intelligent people who might bother with Sanskrit and Prakrit and difficult stuff like that.
But Oxford too posed a problem. It seemed, the 'mother country-' whether India or England- could not provide what the Naipauls needed to keep their father's torch gloriously ablaze.
Why? Well, the truth was there nothing greatly the matter with the Hindu cane-cutters of Trinidad. They did well by themselves, just as the Naipauls did well by themselves. No great 'social reform' was necessary. So what if some village lads got into a lathi fight once in a while? But, they are going to Muslim Pir's shrine for blessing on lathi! Is that not a betrayal of Religion? No. It's nonsense is what it is.
The Trinidad Hindus evolved a good communal religious life which Indian scholars have since commended and commented upon. They did well economically and educationally. If some Hindu guy wants to get drunk and chase tail- that's his choice, he is not 'bringing shame on his community'. If some other guy goes to Harvard and becomes a Brain Surgeon- good for him, it doesn't mean he is some sort of magical oracle or exemplar whom we must revere and follow unquestioningly.
The Naipaul's tragedy arises from a deeply materialistic and spiritually stagnant Society's indifference to the notion that literature can fulfill a great social purpose by telling people to like pick up your litter already and don't roll your eyes when I'm talking to you and for fuck's sake do you have to be so dark? Have you tried bleach? Fucking proles! They want to take my tax dollars to educate you thickies? This is Political Correctness gone mad! Rivers of blood, I say, rivers of blood will flow especially now that French Cambodian lady-boy David Cameron's got into Number 10.
V.S Naipaul did not do particularly well at Uni. One can scarcely blame him. Academic subjects like English or History or drunkenly getting gay with each other were no longer what they had been at the beginning of the 20's when Waugh went up. Indeed, the Second World War had changed the nature and function of literature, of literary culture, in a drastic fashion. Individuals no longer mattered. People might be permitted to hold opinions, even express them in some socially sanctioned way, but Truth was something churned out by Giant machines in which the salaried, State-trained, intellectual was an interchangeable cog. History no longer had a human scale. Well, perhaps with the aid of Gandalf the Grey, the hobbits of the shire could prevail over the blazing eye of Sauron, but as Naipaul, Tolkein's student, would surely have known, the Elvish rune for the Silmarillionic tuirgen was also (as Keshave Chandra Das Gupta has hinted in his magisterial study of Orcish) a homophone for the watery sigil of the voiceless Loerelei whose sodomizing of pygmies to gain supernatural powers (prompting, perhaps, Naipaul's remark that he found pygmies scarcely human) is the key to Pres. Obama's current Afpak strategy (vide Gayatri Spivak Chakravorty's Prolegomenon to all future Post Colonial Studies) .
Naipaul faced with the equally arid alternatives of mindless philology or I.A Richards being anally raped by analytical philosophy had nothing to learn at University and, with commendable industry, he applied himself to the task of learning nothing, observing nothing- a habit which has served him well throughout his long and illustrious literary prostitution.
Not that he couldn't write elegantly or do a bit of actual research- 'the loss of El Dorado' aint utter crap- it's just History wasn't a mirror in which he could see his own face and so it had to go. So too did Economics and Politics and Science and... everything that has made the last fifty years such an exciting time to be alive.
Waugh, on the other hand, had a great sense for history, an instinctive understanding of economics- like others of his generation, he was confronted with the failure of Political Liberalism at a time when ideological positions were still very much in flux, dialogue- 'chatter' if you like- was as natural as getting drunk in the nearest dive; the febrile wit, the world weariness, the senile, sententious, Edwardian Socialism of Saki's salons had given place to something new. A great climacteric had been passed. Pieces could be picked up, but more than pieces there were new things, new ideas, new methods of analysis, a new understanding of the human mind born out of the terrible attrition of trench warfare, a new world view was there for whosoever cared to solder it together . Ideas mattered, literary excellence mattered- personality was a cult for the dandy not the dictator- much was recoverable, more was possible- with the innocence of children, Waugh's generation entered a Brave New World.
Not so, Naipaul's cohort entering Oxford under the chilling conditions of Post War Austerity- this would be a year or two after Orwell's 1984 came out- Britain had never had it so bad. Popular novelists of the period speak of amalgamation into the U.S.A or mass emigration to Australia as the only solution to Britain's seemingly insurmountable problems. Naipaul himself later applied for a job with the Indian High Commission!
People like Waugh might still provide literary banquets- and authors a few years his elder still engaged with ideas- but the new market was for processed food- T.V dinners for the suburbs and corned beef for the inner cities. Few, even in the 1970's, could have predicted Britain's phoenix like resurrection as a gastronomic super-power. Modesty forbids mention of my own achievements in this field- though I did once prepare a simple poached egg dish following a French recipe I found on the Internet- and I have it on good authority that my Salmonella is to die for.
Virtually nobody back in the 50's, except perhaps some mathematical economists or displaced Austrians, give us any inkling in their work of the importance our generation would later attach to things like property rights, mechanism design, markets, diversity as a driver of trade and development and so on all of which revive the role of the individual in his freely contracted social arrangements, the better understanding of which makes the novel, literary fiction, once again central to Civil Society and the Liberal Political Project.
Waugh understood these things. But, over the course of his life- his arduous treks in the wilderness seeking his own soul- he saw and learned something more. Civilization is all center and no periphery.
So is God.
Naipaul isn't God but he has made himself the center of the World he writes about. The Scandinavians- invoking, with Viking wit, its 'suppressed histories'- have given him a Prize for it. But what is that world? It is a world of darkness briefly illumined by his father's stories-
But the habits of mind engendered by this shut-in and shutting-out life lingered for quite a while. If it were not for the short stories my father wrote I would have known almost nothing about the general life of our Indian community. Those stories gave me more than knowledge. They gave me a kind of solidity. They gave me something to stand on in the world. I cannot imagine what my mental picture would have been without those stories.
This, then is the key to Naipaul's dessicating art- his mummifying religion- his vast African spiritual safari which- like Proust's pilgrimage to Ruskin's Venice- occurred not in the sort of time counted off by the clock-face but that other type of time, Bergsonian duration, the Time which really counts- except it doesn't at all, Bergson was fucked in the head; what he says of Time can be said of anything- the door is opened to a Panalethism of a particularly silly sort- Iqbal's version of Islam, Naipaul's notion of everything including Islam- and the ungainsayable historical fact that the former cashed out as the latter.
Naipaul ends his Nobel lecture thus-
I will end as I began, with one of the marvellous little essays of Proust in Against Sainte-Beuve. "The beautiful things we shall write if we have talent," Proust says, "are inside us, indistinct, like the memory of a melody which delights us though we are unable to recapture its outline. Those who are obsessed by this blurred memory of truths they have never known are the men who are gifted... Talent is like a sort of memory which will enable them finally to bring this indistinct music closer to them, to hear it clearly, to note it down ..."
Talent, Proust says. I would say luck, and much labour.
So it seems, Waugh's nightmare vision of a man being forced to read Dickens to his illiterate jailer in the middle of the rain forest was no mere nightmare after all- it was a prophesy concerning the art-form he had advanced. Substitute Naipaul for Dickens and you begin to see how that might work.
Perhaps, as Borges was fond of saying, all books are by the same author. Or rather- what Dickens and his ilk started, Naipaul and his ilk finished. Read Dickens as if Naipaul were writing him.Read Dickens aloud as if Naipaul were writing him and Waugh is standing there listening dumb-struck and appalled, having just stepped into this clearing in the jungle.
Except there is no jungle. Waugh already knew that Naipaul would write Dickens. After all, Waugh had a dad who worked for Chapman & Hall who published Dickens. And Naipaul had a dad who once tried to help his community by publishing some stories and articles. It's not Jungles or Geography that matters. This kind of winding down is built into literature's 'duration'.
Suddenly becoming a Hare Krishna, or a Wicca Wizard or Sarah Palin or whatever don't look so bad. Except, of course, it's the same mumbo-jumbo as Literature. And African spirituality, African poetry, African Music- all of which, at one time, and perhaps still do in places, wove together everything which makes social life meaningful and worthwhile- are now sufficiently invoked, sufficiently explored, by a sneering reference to muti magic- for to such muti magic must all Literature, all High Finance, inevitably devolve.
Only thus, and not otherwise, now Patrick French has done for Naipaul what he so signally failed to do for himself, can, at age of 78, Naipaul- not a good man, but our man, in Africa- finally telegraph us his scoop.