V. S. Naipaul
THE KNOWN AND THE UNKNOWN
There is the Paris of Catherine de Medicis at the Tuileries, as Hugo wrote; of Henry I at the Hotel-de-Ville, of Louis XIV at Invalides; Louis XVI at the Pantheon, and Napoleon I at the place Vendome, but there is also the Paris of those who did not rule, the poets and vagabonds, and it was the Paris of Henry Miller we were in . . . this Paris where you woke bruised after tremendous nights, indelible nights, your pockets empty, the last bills scattered on the floor, the memories scattered too. We went upstairs with three girls apiece and the club officer napped in the car.
—James Salter, Burning the Days
I’ll tell you a little story. . . . There’s an elegant lady in England . . . getting on now. She wrote a novel about a lady with a lover; the lady had a moral crisis—“Would I condemn others when I’m immoral . . . ,” you know that kind of thing, all very delicate and beautiful. And this novel came out a few days before the pound took its enormous dive—it seemed it was going to touch one dollar fifty. And I thought, the dive of the pound—the extended event—has destroyed the value of this novel, which implies that this world is of value, that values are steady and are going to go on. But when your pound crashes, you cannot make those assumptions anymore.
—V. S. Naipaul in an interview
To forge or discover one’s identity as a writer is almost never an easy task. Some beginning writers are tempted to focus on models who appear more central and celebrated, who represent a known direction and destination.
But what if you’re a writer who feels that there’s something marginal in your identity? The path forward may be particularly obscure, indeed may seem not to exist at all. But then the truly new is almost always strange, and the truly strange is almost always new.
In short, some look for precedents and predecessors and find many. Some look and find few or seemingly none.
We live in a time when the centers of culture and literature are being complicated and decentered by the new and unprecedented, by difference. This is a reflection both of an increasingly globalized culture and an increasingly varied population in many countries. The causes of this diversity are myriad: race, ethnicity, questions of sexual identity and orientation, migrations and immigrations, exiles, globalized travel, the expression of difference allowed by the Internet, where new, particularized, or marginalized audiences, groups, and communities are constantly being formed.
For young or beginning writers engaged in the task of discovering who they are as a writer and what their subject and vantage point might be, I present here two starkly different approaches to identity, culture, and the literary canon. In part, I argue that one of these writers, whose origins were particularly obscure, has come to be representative in ways he never imagined as a young writer, and certainly no one around him surmised when he started out.
Implicitly, this essay is also about my own development as a writer and my perpetual exploration of my own “minority” status, the seeming obscurity of my origins and position in the culture in which I live and write. I came here by many “crooked and indirect paths,” and I surmise that many writers coming after me will find this to be the case for them.
James Salter, V. S. Naipaul—two writers whom I first encountered in my early thirties, two writers whom I love, each representing for me a literary path, a way of writing.
The first, Salter, is a Jew who grew up in New York and who changed his name in order to . . . well, it isn’t quite clear. To remove his ethnic and religious heritage? To take on the image of a WASP writer? In interviews, Salter refused to discuss the matter. The question of his personal ethnic/religious identity was one he wished to avoid, or perhaps, one he did not think essential to his task—though, of course, such a stance is, on another level, a statement of identity.
Salter is, as they say, a writer’s writer. As with Nabokov, you read Salter for the sentences, though Salter’s language is less ornate and piquant, and its precision and elegance more straightforward. Nabokov’s writing was that of an émigré, of an eccentric and idiosyncratic genius. Salter’s style is that of a native-born American and bears a strong relationship to Hemingway’s example—the writing presumes certain givens, certain knowns, certain values and systems of judgments that, if not universal, are assumed to be widely recognized.
Salter opens his memoir, Burning the Days, with this vignette:
The true chronicler of my life, a tall, soft-looking man with watery eyes, came up to me at the gathering and said, as if he had been waiting a long time to tell me, that he knew everything. I had never seen him before.
I was in my fifties. He was not much older but somehow seemed an ancient figure. He remembered me when I was an infant, riding in a horse-drawn carriage on Hope Avenue in Passaic. He named my birthday, “June tenth, 1925, am I right? Your picture was in The New York Times when you were a captain in Korea and had just shot down three planes. You married a girl from Washington, D.C. You have four children.”
He went on and on. He knew intimate detsails, some a bit mixed up, like a man whose pockets are filled with scraps of paper. . . . As if it were an attempt to try to be of some importance. “You went to Horace Mann,” he said. “The football coach was Tillinghast.”
To Salter, this anecdote says, “There is your life as you know it and also as others know it, perhaps incorrectly, but to which some importance must be attached.” But what strikes me about this opening is the assumption that the life and world Salter is speaking about are known by others—and implicitly, by the reader. Of course, the reader who opens Salter’s memoir doesn’t know the particulars of Salter’s past. But the context of that life, its setting? That is known; that is assumed. Salter doesn’t have to explain his references here to a literate American reader—Passaic, the New York Times, the war in Korea, even Horace Mann (where Jack Kerouac went to high school). Salter’s background, his place in the world, is neither an enigma nor a mystery to him or this apparent stranger at a party—or implicitly, to us. When Salter writes about where he grew up, he describes it as a place we all know: “There is the immortal city—Grant’s Tomb domed and distant in the early days, the great apartment buildings with their polished lobbies, the doormen and green awnings reaching out to the curb.” (One understands implicitly that Bed Stuy or the Queensbridge Houses aren’t part of this immortality, though millions know their significance in our cultural history.)
In the memoir that ensues, through the brilliance and beauty of the writing, the moments and days Salter chooses to recall take on luminescence and depth, the quality of being etched in stone: his time as a fighter pilot in Korea; his time in Paris as an aspiring writer, meeting such literary “kings” as Irwin Shaw; his time in the film business, encountering beautiful Italian actresses and working with Robert Redford. The writing floats on the glamour of certain names, speaks of the “worlds above,” worships the famous and the immortal: “In the past I have written about gods and have sometimes done that here. . . . Frailty, human though it may be, interests me less. So I have written about certain things, the essential, in my view. . . . The rest is banal.” To write this way requires a certainty of belief and values, a sense of knowing not only that the gods exist but that we all agree on who they are. There is a center, a glittering capital of the world. Stars. Luminaries. Kings. Immortals. Things history cannot destroy.
As a young writer, I fell in love with Salter’s writings. And though feminist critiques mitigated some aspects of my appreciation for his literary antecedent, Hemingway, I still read both of these authors with pleasure and admiration, still appreciate their luminous, vividly etched prose. At the same time, I’m also aware that my pleasure and admiration accompany a sense of ressentiment and bafflement at the romantic and seemingly universalized aspects of the worlds these authors describe, since their worlds are not the world I occupy or ever will. Both have a drive to aestheticize, glamorize, mythologize, and centralize their own experience, the people they encounter, and the worlds they have lived in. In truth, I suppose I envy such strategies because, rightly or wrongly, I don’t feel them appropriate or suited to who I am and my position in the world, to the subject matter that occupies most of my writing as a third-generation Japanese American.
Instead, I’ve found in the writings of a very different writer, V. S. Naipaul, a more useful mirror to the world in general and my particular portion of it. I say this, despite mixed feelings about his work and persona, misgivings echoed in any number of critiques of his work and his life. He has been denounced by many for racism and sexism both in his writings and his remarks, and I agree with many of these critiques.
Beyond all this, while I find a ready sense of pleasure in reading Salter or Hemingway, I don’t quite feel the same reading Naipaul. Indeed, I probably prize Naipaul for offering just the opposite of pleasure. I read him for the hard truths he uncovers, for his relentless, unstinting, and inquisitive intellect, and perhaps, most of all, for the discomfort he causes in his readers, for the unsettling and unpleasant aspects that he focuses on in the worlds he has traveled through. If there is an antiromantic, Naipaul is it. He refuses to aestheticize, glamorize, mythologize, or centralize. But his ability to write like this is not a skill that came easily to him. He had to fight for such ability, such clear-sightedness, and in many ways, his first opponent in this battle was himself.
In this battle, Naipaul faced questions similar to those Salter faced, questions both writers of color and white writers continue to face today: What is my identity as a person and as a writer? How do I place myself and create my work within the tradition of the writers who have come before me? But for Naipaul, his own particular answers to these questions led him to challenge certain received notions of what the tradition could include.
Rather than one of the capitals of the world, V. S. Naipaul grew up in Port of Spain, Trinidad, amid the Indian population there—that is, as part of a tiny ethnic/racial-minority population on a small island in the Caribbean archipelago. Like Walcott, Rushdie, and Achebe, Naipaul came to England as what I call the “scholarship boys,” writers from the colonies or former colonies; Naipaul bore with him the legacy of his colonial Anglocentric education. Such students grew up under the aegis and legacy of empire; they were taught that there was indeed a center, a capital of the world. Thus, as Naipaul indicates in the autobiographical novel, The Enigma of Arrival, when he left Trinidad he had visions of himself writing like Somerset Maugham or Evelyn Waugh, producing novels about English country houses. As for the life Naipaul and his family lived in Trinidad, the young Naipaul deemed that unsuitable for literature. Many younger writers from marginalized backgrounds may feel a similar sentiment and even be encouraged by misguided instructors to assent to such a view; given the power of the majority, of dominance, of whiteness and cultural prestige, what do I have in my background, such a younger writer may think, to compete with this?
Only later did Naipaul realize that this provincial, colonial, ethnically bound island life would be his first subject. Gradually, he learned the history of his small island and how its cultural and racial mixture came into being; he came to understand that this history included not only that of his own island but that of the whole Caribbean archipelago.
At the same time, he ended up living the rest of his life in England, and that too shaped his viewpoint of his past; he experienced the English not in books but in actuality. Given where he grew up and his racial and ethnic identity, his struggle to make a place for himself in English letters was a task of almost insurmountable difficulty. Considering the marginality of the place and the people he came from and the enormity of transforming that place and people into literature, we should not be surprised that Naipaul speaks often in his writing and interviews of his sense of isolation, of a “rawness” in his nerves.
How does a writer from the margins, from a position like Naipaul’s, confront the limitations of that position? In part because he came from such an isolated place and community, because he came from the periphery and not the center, Naipaul felt he had to travel to make up for his lack of sophistication. His wide experience of the world would help compensate for the fact that he could not assume a universal acceptance of the significance of his background and experience in the way, say, either of the Amises automatically could. He understood that he needed to learn, as Eliot instructed in his definition of wit, that there were other cultures and ways of living, both in the present and in the past, than the one he grew up with.
Over and over in his writings, Naipaul asks, What is the world? For him, this question involves who is viewing that world and from what perspective, and his critical eye toward European culture and the center of the literary world has perhaps been less noticed than his critiques of the so-called Third World.
For example, at one point in A Writer’s People he remarks, “It is amazing to me . . . how often I was baffled by famous novels of the time. I didn’t understand Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, which was a hit in 1955. It was set in Indo-China and was about the war to come. . . . I didn’t understand the book partly because I didn’t read the newspapers, or read them in a selective way.” The younger Naipaul’s befuddlement might ostensibly be attributed to the fact that, growing up in Trinidad, he would have had little exposure to the geopolitics of postwar America. But for Naipaul his ignorance possessed deeper roots:
As soon as I begin to examine the matter I see that this ignorance of mine (there is no other word for it), this limited view, was an aspect of our history and culture. Historically, the peasantry of the Gangetic plain were a powerless people. We were ruled by tyrants, often far off, who came and went and whose names we very often didn’t know. It didn’t make sense in that setting to take an interest in public affairs, if such a thing could be said to exist. What was politically true of the Gangetic plain was also true of pre-war colonial Trinidad; in this respect at any rate the people who had made the long journey by steamship from India found nothing to jolt them.
The younger Naipaul, though, didn’t let his bafflement before Greene’s work become a stopping point. Eventually, he had to ascertain what his younger self lacked and then “read and write himself out of it.”
But in this essay, Naipaul is not finished. He further complicates this picture of his younger self’s ignorance with a critique of Greene. Naipaul argues that Greene, in his own way, also suffered from a blind spot or a lack of sophistication; this blind spot came from the seemingly privileged and central vantage point from which Greene writes:
If in 1955 I didn’t know what The Quiet American was about, and had to leave the book two-thirds of the way, it was because Graham Greene hadn’t made his subject clear. He had assumed that his world was the only one that mattered. He was like Flaubert in Sentimental Education, assuming that the complicated, clotted history of mid-nineteenth-century France was all-important and known.
Naipaul’s point rests on a crucial dialectic: If you come from the margins, you know you are not central; you cannot assume that others will be familiar with the portion of world that fostered you, much less assume its importance. You are aware there are other ways of looking at yourself and your portion of the world than that of those you grew up with. The bafflement of the younger Naipaul before Greene’s novel carried seeds of humiliation—a familiar Naipaulian emotion—and thus, for Naipaul, a spur to address gaps in his knowledge.
But if, like Greene, you reside in the dazzling center or, to use Czesław Miłosz’s phrase, “the glittering capital of the world,” you can easily believe that the center is all there is or all that is worthwhile. You do not have to pay attention to the worldview of those at the periphery; they must understand you, not the other way around. Thus Naipaul implies that for Greene, celebrated as he was—indeed because he was so celebrated—no such reversal of ignorance took place, despite the Third World settings of his fiction: “And it seemed, in a strange way, that at the end, when the dust settled, the people who wrote as though they were at the centre of things might be revealed as provincials.”
Those who charge Naipaul with Eurocentrism—for which a case can be made—often overlook the ways he turns his cold, critical eye on the culture and society he once worshipped as a scholarship boy.
In Naipaul’s writings, the most illuminating example of the learning process he underwent is explored in The Enigma of Arrival. Much of this novel is spent scanning the landscape, his neighbors, and the rhythms of the English countryside surrounding a cottage where a writer from Trinidad of Indian descent takes up residence. The writing is bucolic, leisurely, and on the surface, makes little of the intrusion of this dark-skinned colonial Trinidadian among the white rural British. And then, after just a little over a hundred pages of local color, Naipaul launches into a description of the journey that took the narrator of the novel from Trinidad—“just off the northern coast of Venezuela”—to England.
It is impossible to read this portion of the novel without viewing it as a portrait of Naipaul’s younger self. I’m crossing a certain line here, but I’m going to write about this section of the novel as if it does reflect Naipaul’s own experiences because I believe doing so clarifies certain issues crucial to his development as a writer.
As the fictional doppelgänger for Naipaul describes his journey and then his subsequent first years in England, he repeatedly distinguishes between what his younger self experienced and what his younger self deemed worthy of writing about. Given his colonial education and the English literature he had read, the young Trinidadian of Indian ethnicity aspired to glamour and sophistication, to “a particular kind of writing personality. . . . Somerset Maugham, aloof everywhere, unsurprised, immensely knowing; Aldous Huxley, so full of all kinds of knowledge and also so sexually knowing; Evelyn Waugh, so elegant so naturally.” With such a mind-set, the younger writer, scribbling notes on the plane ride to New York, did not write of the gathering of relatives who saw him off at the airport back in Trinidad:
I did not note down that occasion in my writer’s diary with the indelible pencil sharpened by the elegant Pan American World Airways stewardess in the little airplane. And one reason was that the occasion was too separate from the setting in which I wrote, the setting of magic and wonder. Another was that the occasion, that ceremonial farewell with stiff little groups of people hanging about the wooden building at the edge of the runway, did not fit into my idea of a writer’s diary or the writer’s experience I was preparing myself for. . . .
Though personal adventure was my theme, I was in no position to write about something more important, the change in my personality that travel and solitude had already begun to bring about.
The older narrator looks back at his younger self and provides a context for that self that his younger self could not have provided. He delineates what the younger self knows and what he thought he knew and then what the younger self truly did not know. He often uses variations on the word ignorance in reference to his younger self:
He knew little about his community in Trinidad; he thought that because he belonged to it he understood it; he thought that the life of the community was like an extension of the life of his family. And he knew nothing of other communities. He had only the prejudices of his time, in that colonial, racially mixed setting. He was profoundly ignorant. He hadn’t been to a restaurant, hated the idea of eating food from foreign hands. Yet at the same time he had dreamed of fulfillment in a foreign country.
He looked for adventure. On this first day he found it. But he also came face to face with his ignorance. This ignorance undermined, mocked the writer, or the ambition of the writer, made nonsense of the personality the writer wished to assume—elegant, knowing, unsurprised.
On the ride from the airport to his hotel in New York, the young writer is bullied and cheated by the cab driver, stripping him of “the few remaining dollars” he had on him. Though the young man has some money hidden in his suitcase, that money is unavailable when he reaches the hotel, and he is again humiliated by not being able to tip someone at the hotel. In his room, the young man takes out a roasted chicken that his family has sent with him, a result of the “Indian, Hindu, fear about [his] food, about pollution.” But he has no eating utensils or plate, and he doesn’t know if he might get them from the hotel.
What ensues is a classic Naipaul scene of humiliation, a revealing illumination of the gap between who his younger self imagined himself to be and who he truly was:
I ate over the wastepaper basket, aware as I did so of the smell, the oil, the excess at the end of a long day. In my diary I had written of the biggest things, the things that befitted a writer. But the writer of the diary was ending his day like a peasant, like a man reverting to his origins, eating secretively in a dark room, and then wondering how to hide the high-smelling evidence of his meal. I dumped it all in the wastepaper basket.
Thus began the younger Naipaul’s education into his place in the world. Almost from the moment he left Trinidad, he felt a gap beginning to develop between the man he was and the writer he thought himself to be. Into that gap came doubt, doubt about the abstractness of his education and reading, about his knowledge of the world derived almost solely from books. From this came doubt about his background and position in the world, a sense of his vulnerability and isolation. At the time, this doubt was too much for him to bear, too much to admit, the humiliation too great; he could not quite allow it into his consciousness. To do so would have been too devastating, too shameful.
It was only later, through great struggle, through travel and study and writing, that Naipaul began to overcome the gap between the writer and the man.
In The Enigma of Arrival, Naipaul is open about how much of this gap between the man and the writer stemmed not just from his position as a colonial but also from race. After he has arrived in England, the young Indian Trinidadian writes a story, “Gala Night,” about a dance after dinner on the ship he had taken from New York. Again, the older narrator notes the experiences he had left out of the story; one of these experiences involves his younger self’s quarters on the ship, a narrative that starts with an odd, seemingly unexplainable occurrence: “Only now, laying aside the material of ‘Gala Night,’ I remember having to stand about for some hours while they decided where to put me.”
After this wait, the younger writer is given a cabin “absolutely to [him]self in a higher class.” He is pleased by this arrangement because he has felt anxious about having to share quarters and thinks of this as “traveler’s luck.” Later, there is a commotion, voices outside his cabin, and the lights come on, and the young Indian Trinidadian assumes someone is going to be lodged with him:
But there was trouble. The man who had been brought in was making trouble. He was rejecting the cabin. His voice was rising. He said, “It’s because I’m colored you’re putting me here with him.”
Colored! So he was a Negro. So this was a little ghetto privilege I had been given. But I didn’t want the Negro or anybody else to be with me. Especially I didn’t want the Negro to be with me, for the very reasons the Negro had given. . . .
I was . . . ashamed that they had brought the Negro to my cabin.
Reflecting on the feelings of his younger self, the older narrator sees a desperate refusal to acknowledge what he had shared with this black fellow traveler. For the younger self to acknowledge how the white world viewed that black traveler would have forced an acknowledgment of what that same world would have made of his possibilities of becoming a writer.
Eventually the narrator—and by implication, Naipaul himself—would have to come to terms with the ways race affected his own experiences and not just those of blacks:
In Puerto Rico there had been the Trinidad Negro in a tight jacket on his way to Harlem. Here was a man from Harlem [the man complaining on the ship] or black America on his way to Germany. In each there were aspects of myself. But, with my Asiatic background, I resisted the comparison. . . . It was too frightening to accept the other thing, to face the other thing; it was to be diminished as man and writer. Racial diminution formed no part of the material of the kind of writer I was setting out to be. Thinking of myself as a writer, I was hiding my experience from myself; hiding myself from my experience. And even when I became a writer I was without the means, for many years, to cope with that disturbance.
Reading this passage, I cannot help but think of certain young Asian American writers I’ve encountered who seem determined to avoid any connection with the issues of race or their racial identity and who profess a desire to write about the “universal” without questioning where they have derived their notions of the universal. The worship of whiteness, of a center, of an elite world they so wish to enter has captivated them in ways they do not understand and are unable to acknowledge. It has divorced them from their own experience. And generally, little in their education has provided them with the tools to bridge this gap between the assumed universal and their particular experiences.
Six years later, when the Naipaulian author in The Enigma of Arrival returns to Trinidad, having made his start as a writer, his perspective has changed: “I was no longer interested in English people purely as English people, looking for confirmation of what I had read in books and what in 1950 I would have considered metropolitan material.” Eventually he begins to research historical documents from the history of Trinidad and to see how the Port of Spain street on which he had grown up connects with that history and with the Spanish Empire and the Haitian revolution and the greater history of the Caribbean. He starts to write a book that would “arrive . . . at a synthesis of the worlds and cultures that had made [him]”:
The idea behind the book, the narrative line, was to attach the island, the little place in the mouth of the Orinoco River, to great names and great events: Columbus; the search for El Dorado; Sir Walter Raleigh. Two hundred years after that, the growth of the slave plantations. And then the revolutions: the American Revolution; the French Revolution and its Caribbean byproduct, the black Haitian revolution; the South American revolution, and the great names of that revolution, Francisco Miranda, Bolivar.
Through this investigation and writing about the historical context of his own life and community in Trinidad, the Naipaulian author’s own larger past comes alive to him: “I found I could easily think myself back into that Port of Spain street of two hundred years before. I could see the people, hear the speech and accents.”
And yet, as Naipaul so often makes clear, what never leaves him is his sense of isolation and alienation, the rawness of nerves and constant struggle to assert his voice, the memories of his own ignorance and humiliation that make up, in an ironical dialectic, the core experiences of his life. These discomfiting feelings and the experiences that engendered them constitute hard-won truths whose origins The Enigma of Arrival delineates. What results from these truths can be seen in both his nonfiction and his fiction. Certainly, one can detect these truths in his meticulous and brilliant—in some ways loving and in others satirical—portrait of his father in A House for Mr. Biswas, or in that memorable opening of his novel about Africa, 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.”
During my career as a teacher, I have found that my students have increasingly come from places and circumstances resembling those of Naipaul, as do more and more of my colleagues. It’s not just that these writers possess backgrounds from all over the globe or even from smaller nations like Sri Lanka, Grenada, Lebanon, or Vietnam; it’s that they often have something very singular in their specific history: A young woman who grew up in North Carolina with a black American mother and a Nigerian father whom she did not live with and has not seen since she was thirteen. A mixed-race lesbian from Trinidad whose mother immigrated there from Ghana. A first-generation Muslim Indian American whose family emigrated from Tanzania, where they had lived for two generations, and who returned to Gujarat to explore his family’s roots at the exact time of the anti-Muslim riots there. A forty-year-old woman who lives in Hong Kong, whose mother was Hispanic Cuban and whose father was Chinese West African, and who is writing a novel about a young woman of color with a similar background who forms a relationship with a white supremacist in California.*
The specific and idiosyncratic histories and cultural and ethnic backgrounds of my students do not always provide them clear identification with a specific ethnic or racial group; their difficulties with writing from and out of their own specificity is one reason that I often point them to Naipaul, who faced similar issues and problems. I would argue that this is part of what makes him emblematic, a writer who points to where both American and world literature are now headed. Certainly, his example is instructive in a wide-ranging number of ways. There is little glamour in it, despite the later accolades and prizes he has received, recognition that belies his earlier obscurity and struggles in the literary world. There is instead a courage without comfort—unless that comfort is simply the reward in the struggle to confront the hard truths about oneself and one’s place in the world, the complexities and contradictions of that world, which “is what it is.”
* Such backgrounds are not very different from that of a president named Barack Hussein Obama, who was born in Honolulu of a white mother from Kansas and a Muslim Kenyan father. Later, after divorcing Barack’s father, his mother married an Indonesian Muslim, and Barack lived in Indonesia, where he attended Indonesian-language schools, the first Muslim, the second Catholic. When he returned to Honolulu, with its majority Asian population, he had to learn about what it meant to be a black American outside his family from the few blacks on Oahu and also from readings, particularly The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Yet many tend to view Obama simply as our first black president as opposed to considering his more eccentric actual parentage, familial history, and childhood. In contrast, in Obama’s initial memoir, Dreams from My Father, he explores more of the complexities of his identity—including his own feelings of racial rage. But then that book was written before he became a politician.