V S Naipaul (1932-2018) R.I.P.

V S Naipaul, writer of fiction and non-fiction, mostly about third world countries or their natives displaced to other lands, has died in England at the age of 85. His last notable action was to win the Nobel Prize in 2001 but he has written nothing of any particular note since then. This may be due to some extent to the death in 1996 of his first wife (Patricia) who, according to his biographer, Patrick French, had been his editor and collaborator on much of his earlier works.

Waugh was never a friend or even acquaintance of Naipaul. As he did, however, in the case of many young writers in whom he recognized talent, Waugh helped boost Naipaul’s early career. This was in a 1962 review of Naipaul’s first book-length non-fiction entitled The Middle Passage. His earlier fiction had mostly been comic or satirical portrayals of West Indians. Waugh began his review with a recognition that Naipaul was himself:

an ‘East’ Indian Trinidadian with an exquisite mastery of the English language which should put to shame his English contemporaries. He has shown in his stories–particularly in The Suffrage of Elvira–that he is free of the delusion about independence and representative government for his native land. Humour and compassion are the qualities inevitable and most justly predicted of him. (EAR, p. 601)

I doubt that there are many who would agree that Waugh was correct in his prediction of the path Naipaul’s work would take. The early humour and compassion gave way to  unsympathetic and ever darker treatment of his third-world themes. In a few cases, he seemed to be returning to the career Waugh has predicted, most notably in the 1987 novel The Enigma of Arrival which was set, for a change, in rural England. But he failed to follow through on the success of that novel.

In reviewing The Middle Passage, Waugh describes Naipaul’s conflicted attempts to depict his native Trinidad but felt he “was happier when he reached the mainland.” Here he was writing about something of which Waugh had first hand knowledge–Dr Jagan’s Guyana. Naipaul retraced much of Waugh’s journey described in Ninety-Two Days. Waugh himself had  returned a few months earlier from a reprisal of his own 1930s trip, this time in the company of his daughter Margaret. He found that Naipaul wrote about Guyana with “the artist’s eye and ear and his observations are sharply discerning.” According to Waugh, when Naipaul reached the end of his journey in Jamaica, he was “everywhere conscious that the history of the Caribbean is replete with atrocities. He offers little hope (as can no honest trevaller in  these lands) that a new era of hope and plenty is about to open” (EAR, p. 602).

At least one of the obituaries also quotes a letter Waugh wrote to Nancy Mitford referring to Naipaul a few weeks after his review of Naipaul’s book appeared. This was dated 7 January 1963. The quote by Dwight Garner in the New York Times online edition includes only the sentence: “Oh to have a black face.” But this follows a rather more offensive sentence that the NYTimes, understandably, decided to paraphrase: “That clever nigger Naipaul has won another literary prize.” (Emphasis in original.) Dwight Garner comments in the NYTimes:

Naipaul was aware of this sort of racism. He once rewrote the racist slogan “Keep Britain White” by adding a comma: “Keep Britain, White.”

According to Charlotte Mosley’s editorial note (NMEW, p, 474, n. 2), Waugh’s mock envy refers to the 1963 Hawthornden Prize awarded to Naipaul. This is erroneous for two reasons. Waugh himself won the same prize in 1936 for Edmund Campion and would hardly be likely to feign envy of another writer who received that particular award. Moreover, Naipaul’s prize was awarded in 1964 for Mr Stone and the Knight’s Companion which had not even been published when Waugh wrote Nancy Mitford.

Some later articles have also mentioned the influence of Waugh’s writings on Naipaul. For example, a letter in the Stabroek News, a Guyana newspaper, said this:

The work of Naipaul will always be revered along the  work of great scholars: Tolstoy, Dickens and Conrad, etc.  However harsh his criticism, it should help a person or society grow and develop. … He wrote “Guyana has always been land of fantasy” based on the novel A Handful of Dust by Evelyn Waugh. This is the land of El Dorado that never fails to disappoint. Naipaul apart from being the third Nobel Laureate after Arthur Lewis and Derek Walcott has placed the Caribbean on the map of the world with his scholarship that touched every corner of the globe.

The Wall Street Journal in an obituary said something similar:

Mr Naipaul’s writing often blends menace and dark wit, a literary cocktail he discovered while a teenager in the work of Evelyn Waugh, the author of Decline and Fall, A Handful of Dust and other novels. Although hopelessness pervades Mr Biswas’s existence, Mr Naipaul also exposes the humor in his character’s misfortune.

UPDATE: The obituary in the New York Times by Dwight Garner added a reference to a letter written by Waugh after his review of Naipaul’s book. The last paragraph was added to put that reference into context.

UPDATE 2 (15 August 2018): References to Waugh’s influence on Naipaul were added from later stories. Thanks to readers for calling these to our attention.


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