By Missang Oyongha

Trinidadian by accident of birth, Indian by family tree, English by  choice of domicile, VS Naipaul was a Darwinian by instinct. He was much taken with beginnings, origin stories, first causes that explained the individual. Brilliant in college and feted by his peers, he adapted early to a diet of admiration. At twelve, he dreamed of migratory flight from “small, remote, unimportant’ Trinidad. A scholarship boy, he trusted in natural selection to underwrite his leap from provincial Port of Spain to imperial Oxford. Nurturing a fantasy of dominance, he wrote to his father from England that he wanted “to beat the English at their language”, as  if mere fluency would not suffice, as if wordplay were a spectator sport, swordplay.

Unburdened by nostalgia, Naipaul became a ruthless cosmopolitan, who insisted, like a temporal and biological puzzle, that he was “without a past, without ancestors”. In Trinidad, he had felt marooned by the bargain of indenture that brought his grandparents from India to work in the cane plantations. In England, his Indianness made him different,  vulnerable, even exotic; his talent gave him a sort of carapace.  Visiting India for the first time in the 1960s, he found himself  denied “a special quality of response”  — the face that had been distinctive in London became in Bombay merely prosaic.  William James thought that his brother Henry belonged only to the tribe  of the James family. Henry James was of course American by birth, European by cultural  baptism, and English by transplant. V.S.  was only incidentally, a Naipaul;  being  Trinidadian “was a mistake”;  in reality, Naipaul was self-fashioned to resist classication, a tribe of one.

Convinced of the nobility, of his   vocation, Naipaul smothered the natural drive for children in favour  of  the acquired impulse to write. He courted the extinction of his branch, secure in the  realisation that he would be perpetuated by his books. Other writers, save for his father, Seepersad, were peripheral creatures; women writers, in particular, were  a vestigial life form. The chilling opening lines from A Bend in the River (1979)  refer to  ‘men who are nothing, men who allow themselves to become nothing ‘ . In interviews the Naipaul who wrote those words came across  as a man who, by dint ol fine prose, if not by force of tooth and claw, had himself overcome anonymity and inconsequence.

He had a fine collection of Indian art. Like Bellow’s von Humboldt Fleischer, he seemed to have no old friends, “only ex-friends”.  He often explained his work in terms of randomness, intuition (‘Every book has amazed me”) yet the man who ‘followed no other profession”, who told his first wife  Patricia that she was the ideal spouse for a “future grand old man  of Letters” must have been acutely conscious of his life’s teleological shape, and certain of his historically inevitable place.

Half  a century ago Karl Miller insisted that “there could be no cult of Naipau”. For all its range, there was no tinge of the avant-garde about Naipaul’s writing. He seemed unlikely to attract the obsession, imitation, and election to high priesthood that avant-garde writers claimed as their due. Miller was writing in 1967, in the first decade of Naipaul’s writing career. This career had begun with three minor, fine statements of talent, and then issued in catholic,  brilliant arcs of fiction [ A House for Mr Biswas, The Mimic Men),   history [The Loss of El Dorado)  and travel reportage [The Middle Passage,  An Area of Darkness). Naipaul’s  themes were coalescing, book by book :cultural alienation, half-formed societies, the postcolonial world and its discontents, exile, India, personal history.

By the late 1960s, a Naipaul admiration  society, but no cult, was forming in the British literary pages, among commissioning editors, and in the writing prize committees. Miguel Street had been awarded, in 1959, the first Somerset Maugham prize given to a non-European writer. The Mimic Men won the W. H. Smith Award in 1968 . When The Middle Passage was published, in 1962, Evelyn Waugh reviewed Naipaul, publicly, with a right-handed salute to his “exquisite mastery of the English language”.  Later on, Waugh would review Naipaul, to Nancy  Mitford, in  left- handed terms, as “that clever little nigger” who had just won another literary prize. Naipaul’s public persona was equally hardening into relief in  the foreground of his prose. He was the presiding brahmin of a finishing school for snobs. He was the exile who felt existentially wronged by being born  in Trinidad; the student who had found his Oxford reading list inadequate;  the traveller who couldn’t bear Indian hotels, or Indian squalor;  the reader who pronounced  himself distinctly unimpressed by the novelistic gifts of Austen, Hardy, James, Conrad, and “almost every contemporary French novelist’.  I am put in mind, rehearsing the above, of the irascible Russian novelist Vladimir Brusiloff in P. G. Wodehouse’s story,  “The Clicking  of  Cuthbert”,  who declares to the hapless Raymond Parsloe  Devine of  the Wood Hills Literary Society: “No novelists any good except me. Sovietski yah! Nastikoff – bah!  I spit me of zem all”.

In the 1970s, a Naipaul admiration society, but still no cult, began to form in America. C L R James told an interviewer in 1980 that Naipaul’s reputation in this period was essentially an American one. What Edward Said later disparaged as  ‘ epistles to Hampstead and the Upper East Side “appeared regularly in  the New York Review of Books.  In a 1968 NYRB piece on The Mimic Men  V. S., Pritchett  had hailed  Naipaul as “a virtuoso”, and “a brilliant chameleon from the Caribbean”. When Naipaul himself began to write for the NYRB,  he reported from Mobutu’s Zaire, Uruguay, Peron’s Argentina, the Argentina too of  Jorge Luis Borges. In “Borges and the Bogus Past”, Naipaul would uncharitably chide the blind Borges for his perceived failures of  political vision, for his “ancestor worship”. Naipaul’s essays were written ultimately as forensic accounts, a genre whose glories are morbid curiosity, blunt-force candour, detachment, and a fascination with dissection of people and places. The Killings in Trinidad was a noirish real-life story from Naipaul’s native island. It was a tour-de-force  of storytelling and characterisation in which Naipaul appears to have seen clinically through the curious mystique of a murderer, seen through the tragic delusions of white liberal chic.   He saw everything”, is Andre Parent’s admiring  summation, when S. Prasad, the novelist character based on Naipaul in Paul Theroux’s My Secret History (1989), has swiftly deduced the female sex and Italian origins  of a correspondent from  West Africa merely by peering at the handwriting on the envelope.

When Miller wrote his essay in 1967, Naipaul was four years from winning the Booker Prize for In A Free State, but there were already intimations of the symbolic plumage to come  : the book-length studies of his work, the knighthood, the Jerusalem Prize, the David Cohen Prize,  the Nobel.  Theroux’s Andre Parent noted of the fictional  S. Prasad that, in London, “his hotel and restaurant reservations often appeared in the name ‘Sir Arch Prasad’, which pleased him”. He was not yet Sir Vidia, but he was certainly seeming patrician in advance. Naipaul’s work was beginning to appear  like the “fragments of a great confession”, in Goethe’s phrase. What we may consider the seven deadly sins of Naipaul’s personal theology were being invoked in testament after testament from the Third World  : emptiness, faith, fantasy, fundamentalism, mimicry, rage, resentment.  A House for  Mr Biswas was increasingly being described, by critics and fellow writers, as a masterpiece.

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Making an actuarial, rather than an aesthetic argument for reading fiction, Naipaul wrote in the 1960s that “no novel which has lasted a hundred years can fail to give pleasure” . It is as well that he admitted that his judgement was provisional. In the mere sixty years since it was first published an admiration society has formed around A House for Mr Biswas. This fascination persists, because the novel is above all a great work of literature, and only incidentally a tool for literary theorists and biographical sleuths.. It has had a long afterlife, more often mentioned often mentioned in praise than Naipaul’s other novels.

In 2019, it was named by the BBC on its list of the one hundred most influential novels. In 2018, Barack Obama lauded it as one of the best books on his reading list that year. In 2013, the Naipaul House and Literary Museum opened in Port of Spain, Trinidad. It is housed in the actual building on Nepaul street that inspired the  fictional house on Sikkim Street. The house had been restored by a group of admirers called the Friends of Mr Biswas.  (Perhaps Friends of Sir Naipaul would have run the risk of oxymoron?).

In 2009, the novel was included in a selection of twenty modern classics by the Irish Independent. A House for Mr Biswas was dramatised in two parts by BBC Radio Four in 2006. When the Swedish  Academy awarded Naipaul the 2001 Nobel Prize in Literature, James Wood argued in The New Republic that the honour ought to reward, perforce A House for Mr Biswas, and not Naipaul’s controversial books on Islamic societies, the Nobel citation praised A House for Mr Biswas as ” one  of those singular novels that seem to constitute their own complete universes”.  In a 1981 essay on the occasion of the twentieth anniversary of its publication, Naipaul wrote: “Ofl all my books A House for Mr Biswas is the one closest to to me. It is the most personal, created out of what I saw and felt as a child”.  Paul Theroux, in his seminal 1972 study of Naipaul’s writing asked  “Where in fiction is another Ganesh, or another Mr Biswas ?”  Derek Walcott, future former friend of Naipaul’s,  wrote a review in the Trinidad Guardian in November 1961, hailing A House for Mr Biswas as a great new novel of the West Indies.  C LR James recalled getting into an argument with George Lamming over whether Selvon  or Naipaul was the better writer. After Lamming read A House for Mr Biswas, he is reputed to have called Naipaul and said to him, “I have just read A House for Mr Biswas.  I  think it is a masterpiece”.

Naipaul believed that A House for Mr. Biswas would make a good film, because, in justifiable self-homage,  the dialogue had already been written. Naipaul’s sense of drama, his evocative scene-setting and his pictorial breadth and depth, are much in evidence in the novel. Novels are of course written to be read and visualised, imagined into being. A film of the novel would, thus, be a logical  afterlife for the work of art in the age  of cinematic reproduction.

For me, the passage that lends itself most tellingly to cinematic transfer comes when Mr Biswas buys a new suit and chooses to display it by going tothe Oval to watch a cricket match. He has never previously taken an interest in the game, or any aptitude for sport at all. He arrives at the Oval, dandied to the nines, with his fifty-stick cigarette tin in hand.  He does not wish to ‘derange the hang’ of the suit by stuffing it with his smoking gear. The match is about  to end, but Mr Biswas does not know it, as he makes his way with polite excuse-mes through the crowd  on the stands. The final whistle is blown, Mr. Biswas stands up to applaud with the roaring  crowd, makes his way out again, and rides his bicyde home. The journey to the Oval has been its own reward.

It is a scene ripe for incidental music, tracking shots, close-ups, a dialogue- free sequence of images, and a final aerial shot of Mr Biswas cycling away through the evening streets of Port of Spain.  It is dramatic action untethered to plot but deeply emblematic of character —Walter Benjamin, admittedly writing about history, not fiction, praised the chronicler who chooses not to winnow away minor events in his narration of the past.

In the novel, the scene does not seem like a ridiculous affectation of gentlemanliness —Mr Biswas, shouldering his way through the crowd, is not aiming for the feline elan of the social climber. Instead it should be seen as a piece of self-consolatory theatre; one man’s solitary stand in a world where “despite  Marcus Aurelius”,  despite Mohun Biswas’s sometime hope that “some nobler purpose awaited him”,   the vexed course of his life must constitute its own reward.

Missang Oyongha, Lagos, Nigeria: [email protected]