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Naipaul and the life and work problem

This post has been changed a few times. It is expanding in places and contracting in others. I am claiming no new insights, rather working through for myself what I think.

An author doesn’t have to be a nice person or to have lived an exemplary life for the novels to be brilliant. The new biography of Naipaul will have turned people back to the articles such as those below.

1) His former publisher Diana Athill in Granta:

I was right to admire that self-respect, at that time, but it was going to develop into a quality difficult to like. In all moral qualities the line between the desirable and the deplorable is imprecise—between tolerance and lack of discrimination, prudence and cowardice, generosity and extravagance—so it is not easy to see where a man’s proper sense of his own worth turns into a more or less pompous self-importance.

2) Paul Bowman reviews Sir Vidia’s Shadow: A Friendship across Five Continents, by Paul Theroux

3) Zoe Heller in Salon under title, Killing the Father on Theroux’s memoir

4) Sarah Kerr in NY Times reviews Theroux

5) Review of Part II of Patrick French’s biography of Naipaul:
Part I can be got from there.

6) Nigel Reynolds in Telegraph under title: Sir Vidia Naipaul admits his cruelty may have killed wife.

There are photos of her and his mistress.

7) Robert McCrum Guardian two-parter on visit made to Naipaul in Wiltshire

In part II:

(1) His undergraduate years at University College, Oxford, were a perplexing time for the young man. ‘No magic happened in my three years there,’ he says, ‘I continued to fret over the idea of fiction as something made up.’ Fiction as something artificial would not be good enough. For Naipaul, fiction has a serious job to do, it must ‘elucidate a situation’. He says, ‘If there’s no situation to elucidate, I wouldn’t write. I wouldn’t do the work. I hate the idea of narrative just for the sake of narrative.’ But then he takes that back, in apparent contradiction, repeating three times ‘Everything is narrative’. Here, momentarily, you glimpse the way in which, for Naipaul, the novel has been the balm to the confusions of his inheritance.

(2)……After he won the Nobel prize in 2001, and possibly in acknowledgment of this painful personal story, he found a passage in Proust’s essay Against Sainte-Beuve to elucidate his deepest self, using his Nobel speech to headline it.

It’s an interesting passage, and worth quoting, because it goes to the heart of what Naipaul is about: ‘Proust has written with great penetration of the difference between the writer as writer and the writer as social being… a book is the product of a different self from the self we manifest in our habits, in our social life, in our vices… I will go further now. I will say I am the sum of my books … it’s been like this because of my background. My background is at once exceedingly simple and exceedingly confused.’

V.S. Naipaul On Being a Writer, New York Review of Books 1987, deals briefly with Contra Saint-Beauve.

Spark Notes on Swann’s Way

also gives a bit on Contra Saint-Beuve

Wiki: Saint-Beuve

Pierre-Louis Rey:

Towards the summer of 1909, the essay By Way of Saint-Beuve (Contre Sainte-Beuve) metamorphosed into a novel. By imagining that his hero, invited to a matinée at the home of the Princesse de Guermantes, had a revelation of time in its two modes of being (inner time through a series of reminiscences, and outer time through the ageing faces of the Princess’s guests), Proust changed the conclusion of his essay into a fictional ending; but it was already full of imaginary scenes and characters, to the point that the thread of his critical discourse had been lost. In short, the project had developed rather than lost its way.


V.S. Naipaul On Being a Writer, New York Review of Books 1987, deals briefly with Contra Saint-Beauve.


Naipaul, though originally sanctioning the French biography has said he hasn’t read it.


There is no obligation to read about the life of a novelist to enjoy the books. Many may deliberately keep away from what the author has done and said. It would give more time to get through more novels. But I doubt few serious readers can resist the temptation to match lives to works. That doesn’t mean to say that once we are experts on the life, we are experts on the books.

People are fascinated with Picasso’s life and milieu which ought to help understanding why he turned to cubism. But if you don’t like his later work – as an aesthetic experience – theoretical understanding of why he and others developed the art form will be unlikely change your mind.


Back-tagging in WordPress on ‘Naipaul’ I see there is a bit of a debate going on. Nigel Beale in Sunday Salon: Why questions about art and creativity can be tiresome , refers back to his first post,
Author vs. Work; Sainte-Beuve vs. Proust; Dorothy vs. Dan. Stephen Mitchelmore takes up Nigel’s contra Proust, in a post primarily on remarks on John Carey’s review of John French’s biography of Naipaul.


Something else struck me. Another blogger mentioned recently tackling a Naipaul novel. He or she was not enamoured. The pidgin Englishes (plural) got on his/her nerves, and there was puzzlement, for example, over why the local Trinidadian newspaper in the novel covered Hindi films. What were Hindi films all about? How much time do you need to take off from reading the book to find something like this abstract from Finding a Place: Indo-Trinidadian Literature, to give some pointers. It is at this point dear friend, you put the novel down and start reading about the West Indies. Why rush? Take your time: savour the whole process of book and background. Naipaul’s life will help to explain the Hindi films too.


Whether you consider the life and the work are intertwined or not, it helps to be able to understand some of the key references. It might be the merest flicker of a mention. If you are not in tune with the subtle nuances, then a book will not mean as much to you: you will not be getting all of that the author hoped you would. These words have been worked on to create this magic, these illusions and psychologies and emotions. It is impossible for me not to think in film terms : some small background feature of a scene that is in some way building an understanding of the action in the scene and the film as a whole. It can be a game too. Where things or actions are placed in front of us which are not meant to be significant but are just entertaining. However, for a moment we wonder if they are important. Jack Nicholson, in Chinatown, putting wristwatches under the back and front of a car tyre, is a very satisfying image. If we do not grasp immediately what this is about we soon do and are impressed. But if we learnt that scriptwriter was in the habit of doing this with watches , or had learnt about it as a real-life activity amongst private detectives, rather than having invented it, would this help or hinder our pleasure in the story?

Can you inhabit the world of the novel without some of this? To create little loops of sub-stories – often involuntarily, often like daydreams, which you may have to force yourself to leave to get back to the reading – is part of the magic of great writing (and film and art, music, and architecture).

The brilliance of the writing alone will not take you into the world the writer is creating. You take something you know about the world with you on this journey. The more the better. The author uses what he knows you know. This is what makes his story possible for you are the reader.


I find I have no difficulty with references to Hindi films in Naipaul (I admit here, by the way, I haven’t read the book…) because I already know quite a lot about Indian Trinidadians and the West Indies in general. I didn’t need to look up Hindi and Trinidad in Google, but it certainly added more to my understanding, event the 30 seconds I spent scanning a few pages to find the way the presbyterian Church used Hindi to encourage Indian West Indians to join it.

I have only recently learnt more of Naipaul’s life, which helps me with the novels: in particular to help chose which I might tackle. But then it is not so much his life as his attitude to where he lived and why he chose to leave, and so on. There have been umpteen reviews of his books over the decades which will have tackled the life in relation to the work which will have been good pointers , for example, to whether Naipaul’s early novels were your thing.


You may pick out a well-known author because he is meant to be good – one to tick off the list – only to be disappointed because the theme or characters do not engage. Forget the brilliance of the writing. Maybe, no matter how much you read outside the novel about the world around you, it will still not make a particular novel a worthwhile experience.


The more films you have watched the more you will appreciate references and homages to other films, both of content and technique.


This seem to be working towards a conclusion that the range, depth and breadth of fiction you have read or attempted to read might bear a relation to your general knowledge. Perhaps not dissimilar to some people’s attitude to food. Those used to a certain type, when offered something different and exotic, turn their noses up at it.


On Start the Week (BBC Radio 4) this morning, they were decrying the English Departments of late for preferring theory over the books themselves { side remarks about structuralism and post-structuralism… and did I hear someone say post-post-structuralism?}. I distinctly heard Andrew Marr say, What could an 18 year old {himself at Oxford or Cambridge no doubt} get from reading all these books, without experience of life. Someone else, novelist Maggie Gee, I think, said this did not matter so much, that it was possible to get something out of these books (shall we say Shakespeare?) with little knowledge. In any case, one the gets some of the background and goes back for another try, surely?


While writing this I have been thinking of Dostoevsky’s The Brother’s Kamerazov and Thomas Mann’s novels. Before tackling Kamerazov, I had read, years before, Solzynitsyn’s Cancer Ward. The fact that I had read a lot about religion in the preceding 10 years made Kamarazov much easier.

I read The Magic Mountain at 25. Though I did not understand it all, I was worldly-wise enough to see in its basics what is said here. I had not got the arts education to catch many of the literary references, but I knew some modern European history, had heard of Lubeck, Mann’s home city, and even recognised the way Hansa fitted into the story, even if only from some vague knowledge of the distinctness of Northern Germany. I could place myself in this world quite well. Hans Castorp sets off from Hamburg in the first sentence in The Magic Mountain . It would be helpful to know that it had been a Haseatic port.

The TV series Magnetic North, recently aired on British TV, mentioned that Hitler hated these Baltic cities because they were bourgeois. If you knew that and realised the journey Hans took from Hamburg to Davos cut right through the rest of Germany, you would realise you are already being told something.

I looked up a bit more about Hansa after the TV programme, realising by looking at the maps, how far this economic community spread, east and west (King’s Lynn, in Norfolk was a Hansa port) and thought how culture was bound to have spread as well. So, knowing this before starting The Magic Mountain, one would be seeing something more than in the words describing Hans’ train journey across Germany to Switzerland. Knowing it after reading it is not without its satisfactions.

This thinking seems to lead inexorably to the elitism of reading, with a well-educated core having proper access the best of the best in novels, with reasonably intelligent, curious others sometimes straying into this hallowed space, like out Naipaul reader who is irritated by the notion of Hindi films popping up in a novel about Trinidad. To the rest the world of the superior novel – if it could called that for the sake of simplicity – a foreign country they have no desire to visit.

In the course of writing this I found a GoogleBook extract from Patriotism, Cosmopolitanism and National Cuture: Public Culture in Hamburg 1700 – 1933. From page 193 {Title: The discrete charm of the Hanseatic Bourgeoisie. Geography, History and Psychology in Thomas Mann’s Hamburg. } which is a wonderful illumination. Whether we have to take these facts and ideas on board, such as the Hanseatentum, and accept the life and work are inextricably linked, or whether we can say that these are facts and ideas largely outside the author which would help us to grasp the author’s intent better, I’m not sure. In this essay Hans Rudolf Vaget explains why Mann Chose Hamburg as Castorp’s starting point rather than Lubeck, and also that the allusion he was trying to create by so doing was an east verses west tension rather than a north south one. I can’t remember if there is a telegraphed discussion about this in the novel. Chapter 2 does deal with Hans’ background ( Hans….Hasa…Ha!). I’ll get the latest translation of TMM and start all over again with my new knowledge.

March 31, 2008 Posted by | Mann, Naipaul, Proust, Saint-Beauve | , , , | Leave a comment