By Dr. Selwyn R. Cudjoe
August 25, 2010
In 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.”
“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.