Naipaul in the House

By Dr. Selwyn R. Cudjoe
August 25, 2010

Vidia NaipaulIn April or May of 1888, my former wife and I were having dinner with two colleagues when the phone rang. My nephew called from the upper part of the house: “Uncle Selwyn, Mr. Naipaul is on the phone.” A tense silence came over the room. I took up the phone.

From the other end a soft, refined voice announced: “This is Vidia Naipaul. My wife tells me that you want to speak with me. What do you want to speak with me about?”

I had just finished writing a book on Naipaul (published subsequently as V. S. Naipaul: A Materialist Reading) and wanted to know how he felt about it before I submitted it to my publisher. I also wanted to interview him. I responded:

“I have just finished a book about your work and wanted to know your thoughts about it.”

He countered:

“Why do you want to write about me?”

“I have been studying your work for several years and believe I had some important things to say about it.”

“But Trinidadians do not like my work,” he protested.

I assured him that Trinidadian and Tobagonian responses to his work were more complex than that. Generally, they like and admired his work, but felt some times he said unusually harsh things about them and their country.

The conversation continued along that vein for a while. Then he said, “Why don’t we do the interview now?”

It was Saturday night and I was ill prepared to interview him then. I told him I would speak with him at any time and place of his choosing but I could not interview him them. I was excited to discourse with this distinguished son of the soil about his work.

I believe he was on his way to the south of the United States to do A Turn in the South, a book about the blacks in that region. He asked me to send my questions to him via his agent as quickly as possible and that he would get back to me.

He never did.

Among the questions I asked if he felt his inability to address the African aspect of his Trinidad experience impeded his work from going forward. I suggested that until he dealt with that dimension of his social/cultural world that he would be unable to move forward as a novelist who creates the sharp, insightful and probing prose that made him famous.

A year later, in May 1989, in reviewing A Turn in the South in the London Review of Books [LRB], the great English critic, Frank Kermode, referred to that exchange.

He said that Naipaul implied that African Americans suffered the worst impact from slavery and that it had produced a deep self-hatred. Kermode interpreted Naipaul in the following manner: “Blacks like heroes but are oppressed by demons, by continuing white indifference or contempt, which affects them so that they have the same feelings, or lack of feeling, about themselves, even if they are successful and respected Atlanta politicians.”

Kermode used my book to support his position. He wrote: “Naipaul may have chosen this [the American South] as his ‘last’ travel report because it has been suggested that he was unsympathetic to people of African origin-‘definite hostility,’ according to Selwyn Cudjoe. Cudjoe commends Naipaul’s honesty on this issue but adds: ‘His relationship with Africans remains a puzzling enigma and brings him to a further dead end. He can go no further until he comes to terms with the African past of his heritage.'”

There after Naipaul seldom wrote about Africans and never came to grips with the black dimension of himself. He wrote profusely about Islam; about his relationship with his father; and continued to search for an ontological center. But he never got back to the African theme.

I was reminded of these concerns this week when Kermode died. He was the foremost literary critic of his generation in the English-speaking world and helped to found the LRB. According to the New York Times, he believed in reading literary classics as a way of gauging “both ideals of permanence and forces of change.”

He believed in the value of literary criticism. In Pieces of Mind, he wrote that criticism “can be quite humbly and sometimes even quite magnificently useful” but it must also “give pleasure like the other arts.” Like Naipaul, Kermode wrote writing in clear, lucent prose and guarded against obfuscation and the needless complications that characterize so much of contemporary criticism.

The observations I made twenty two years ago came back to me with new urgency as I read the announcement about the publication of Naipaul’s latest travel book, The Masque of Africa and an interview he did with Geordie Grieg in the London Evening Standard (August 23, 2010). Greig says: “Essentially the book is Naipaul’s idiosyncratic search for Africa’s spiritual core. He collects experiences and stories of faith and belief on an odyssey across Uganda, Nigeria, Ivory Coast and Gabon-eventually traveling to South Africa, a country that he says he finds ‘mesmerizing and profound.'” Others countries such as the Ivory Coast were repellant to him.

Naipaul’s tone seemed humbly but assured. He hoped that his book does not “cause a firestorm. It is not my intention…I am nervous that people see the book as anti-Africa or use it to make some sort of political point.” Yet, he could not help going back to his old themes: “To witness the old world of magic was to be given some idea of its power and to be taken back to the beginning of things. To reach that beginning was the purpose of my book.”

He was haunted that “there is no written culture in Africa.” Africans “did not see how fundamental it was not having a writing, a literature, a past you could turn to. I wondered why they could not do the writing… What they feel is very profound and it goes down to their very being. But they have no idea of history, though. No idea of a past. This is true of Africa generally.”

The Masque of Africa is scheduled to be published on September 3, the day I leave London for the States. I want to be among the first persons to pick up a copy of this book. It promises to be exciting reading.

10 thoughts on “Naipaul in the House”

  1. Naipaul is either wilfully ignorant, plain stupid or both. Perhaps like many idiots both past and present such as himself, it doesn’t occur to this arrogant fool that Kemet (egypt) IS an African Culture with a host of WRITTEN history AND yes Kemetic Culture IS AFRICAN.

  2. Niapaul is an enigma. It is difficult to figure him out. His writings do not reflect his personality although for the period when he is engross in a subject his personality shines through but temporarily. Trinidad owes a lot to Naipaul in pointing the pathway to literary excellence. His critique of Trinidad during the earlier years was to be expected because he is a man of higher intellectual capacity and unfortunately Trinidad at that time did not challenge him intellectually. Have you ever tried to have a conversation with an illiterate, their mind can only focus on is the mundane things of this world. Trinis have a love/hate relationship with Niapaul. They love his books but are at a loss to understand him. Maybe he prefers it that way….

  3. Khem our ‘Opologist in Chief,’claimed,”Trinidad owes a lot to Naipaul.” Well I’ll be….even my all time favorite comedians John Agitation , Tommy Joseph, Sprangalang , Oliver Samuel, Beulah,and Bill Trotman , could not have produced a line , as preposterous , much less funny , kheim.
    At first I would be kidding in the past,when I made dismissive retorts about you cousin khem , but I am finally convinced that you my friend ,are a full blown lunatic , that should be locked up in some mental asylum,then tortured repeatedly , to within and inch of your life, so that you might get a chance to return as a tongue licking, ‘Trini, Salipainter.’
    If anyone wishes to know why this twin island Republic will remain a backward Third world country , then they have to look no further than at the life, and typical behavior of Naipaul,and similar, insecure, self loathing, country hating others, as- in his case – played out since he obtained a scholarship to study abroad, and failure to extend an iota of gratitude in return to the country of birth , while at the same time groveling .and kissing the rear end of every European so as to obtain global recognition.
    For all his anti Muslim rhetorics,and Third World, brown , yellow ,and black folks denunciations , there are only 2 books worth reading , and they were written long before he adopted this phony British accent, and still thought of himself as a Trinidadian.These are the House for Mr Biswas, and Miguel Street
    Let’s see if this immoral soul would now take up the post May 24th, one love invitation, to finally return home to allegedly help build this country. Shall we say President Richard – exit stage right?
    I have said it once , but it’s worth repeating , ‘sometimes education can be a much overrated commodity,’ but as usual I just could be wrong.
    Yea khem, Trinis lack the ability to challenge each other intellectually, especially when one of their own went to a foreign country, to learn to write , and speak the Queens English like her blond hair great Uncle, ehh .
    Um hmm, they also “have a love/hate relationship with Niapaul,… and .. are at a loss to understand him.”
    This was not the only historical character that these alleged stupid Trinis and the rest of the world followed , but could not fully understand as well. One was a political barbarian , and evil genocidal butcher call Josef Stalin.

    The other was a twisted German Philosopher, with similar inner demons to Naipaul . He was Friedrich Nietzsche.

    The question must again be ask folks, with citizens like this khem , and V.S. who really needs enemies , eehhh?

    1. Um hmm, they also “have a love/hate relationship with Niapaul,… and .. are at a loss to understand him.”–Nealos

      Nealos your little rant proves my point. There is a love/hate relationship going on with Niapaul. He is an enigma. And yes he is a bit pompuous and distant. His first wife was British she may have had an influence on him. Good rant though keep it up…. I almost fell off my chair laughing. Boy you not easy..

  4. Hey khem , you crafty devil. I bowled a short bouncer, and instead of hitting me to the stands for six, you do a Larry Gomes,Jeff Dujon, Derreck Murry move , with good footwork , and timing, smack the ball for a nice four ,between silly mid on and ….,all along the ground then declared the match.
    I now padded up, and expecting some vicious Yorkers , and you start off the blowing with Lance Gibbs, and Inshan Ali/Ranjee Nanan- a la googolees,by leg breaks offspin.
    You are correct ,I am fascinated by writers-and Naipaul is no exception- especially those with the mind of a political animal. A man is free to love , and or hate who/ whatsoever he desire, and Trinidad and Tobago is an easy enough target.
    Continue to love country my friend.

  5. What Naipaul is and will always be is Trini. His formative years were spent in rural Trinidad and this history will always define him. He is a rural Indo-Trinidadian who emigrated, like many. V.S. cannot escape the angst of his upbriging and it must have been difficult for him in rural, backward Trinidad. He, a sensitive, bright young man trying to come to terms with the backwardness of his existence, trying to cope with the rules of his caste in this alien new world. V.S. Naipaul has become his own Mimic Man.

    1. “His formative years were spent in rural Trinidad and this history will always define him. He is a rural Indo-Trinidadian who emigrated, like many” (Danny Colossus)

      As I understand it, as reported by Patrick French in Naipaul’s biography, Naipaul grew up in Diego Martin when he attended St.Mary’s college in Port of Spain.And how do you define “formative years?” He left Trinidad when he was about 18 years old. He in fact gained his experiences in England.
      Implicit in your comment is that there is something inferior about being a rural Indo- Trinidadian, “like many”.It might interest you to know that many rural Trinidadians of all races grew up without the baggage and encumbrances faced by the “city” types, in the open, clean and unbiased atmosphere of the country air.

  6. Uncle Naipaul said ,”Africa is a complete world with it’s own religion,dance… and needs no altering, OR IMPROVEMENT. Islamic nations makes no contribution to science, and mealy imports. “I do not know Derrick Walcott- never read any of his works. Writers are like politicians. I do not know Paul Theroux, or rather I only knew him slightly ,for 9 months while in East Africa,” even if Theroux claimed to have developed a three-decade friendship with him.

    Writers , and many such artist ,are intriguing figures , and Naipaul is no exception. I’ll tell you Danny,the third world, and especially Trinidad , is a very easy place to hate. At lease we can still love brother Naipaul for his honesty, and convictions.
    He had a loving father who died of a heart attack I believe ,when he Naipaul was very young, and up to today he is still troubled by it, as to cause.
    I had a useless father , who I only realize a year ago,died tragically ,in one of our hospital at the hands of 10 vicious security officers , who beat him to death one night , perhaps 10 years ago.
    Should I say good riddance , or conduct my own investigation ,by hunting down the culprits ,as I seek justice, then write a book , after taking my case to the World Court? That’s part of the Trini reality my friend, in a Hobbesian world , that is “nasty , brutish, and short.”
    Keep the faith.

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