Wednesday, August 4, 2021

V.S. Naipaul on the Western Idea of the Writer

V.S. Naipaul (1932-2018) was many things, including a sometimes obnoxious crank. He came from an Indian family in Trinidad and migrated from there to London, where he became one of the English-speaking world's most celebrated writers. From his post as an outsider/insider he poured scorn on a numerous enemies, from British snobbery to feminine hysteria to Islam. In 1990 he was invited by the Manhattan Institute to give a talk on political matters. Most particularly they wanted to hear his thoughts on the world's different value systems, and whether they could be politically accommodated in any common global order. His talk covered a lot of ground and I found it all interesting, but here I will focus on one part: the vast, contentious discourse about authorship. We inherited a great body of European literature, and puzzle over whether it is tainted by bad values. People who think it is want us to read authors from different cultures, who will have different perspectives. Naipaul is having none of that. For him, our way of writing, our whole notion of what it means to be a writer, is absolutely embedded in a civilization that came from Europe but is becoming, as he termed it, the Universal Civilization:

I am not going to attempt to define this civilization. I will only speak of it in a personal way. It is the civilization, first of all, that gave me the idea of the writing vocation. It is the civilization in which I have been able to practice my vocation as a writer. To be a writer, you need to start with a certain kind of sensibility. The sensibility itself is created, or given direction, by an intellectual atmosphere.

Sometimes an atmosphere can be too refined, a civilization too achieved, too ritualized. Eleven years ago, when I was traveling in Java, I met a young man who wanted above everything else to be a poet and to live the life of the mind. This ambition had been given him by his modern education; but it was hard for the young man to explain to his mother exactly what he was up to. This mother was a person of culture and elegance; that should be stressed. She was elegant in visage and dress and speech; her manners were like art; they were Javanese court manners. 

So I asked the young man—bearing in mind that we were in Java, where ancient epics live on in the popular art of puppet plays, “But isn’t your mother secretly proud that you are a poet?” He said in English—I mention this to give a further measure of his education in his far-off Javanese town, “She wouldn’t have even a sense of what being a poet is.”  . . .

I understood the predicament of the young man in central Java. His background, after all, was not far removed from the Hindu aspect of my own Trinidad background. We were an agricultural immigrant community from India. The ambition to become a writer, the introduction to writing and ideas about writing, had been given me by my father. He was born in 1906, the grandson of someone who had come to Trinidad as a baby. And somehow, in spite of all the discouragements of the society of that small agricultural colony, the wish to be a writer had come to my father; and he had made himself into a journalist, even with the limited opportunities for journalism existing in that colony.

We were a people of ritual and sacred texts. We also had our epics—and they were the very epics of Java; we heard them constantly sung or chanted. But it couldn’t be said that we were a literary people. Our literature, our texts, didn’t commit us to an exploration of our world; rather, they were cultural markers, giving us a sense of the wholeness of our world and the alienness of what lay outside. I don’t believe that, in his family, anyone before my father would have thought of original literary composition. That idea came to my father in Trinidad with the English language; somehow, in spite of the colonial discouragements of the place, an idea of the high civilization connected with the language came to my father; and he was given some knowledge of literary forms. Sensibility is not enough if you are going to be a writer. You need to arrive at the forms that can contain or carry your sensibility; and literary forms—whether in poetry or drama, or prose fiction—are artificial, and ever changing.

This was a part of what was passed on to me at a very early age. At a very early age—in all the poverty and bareness of Trinidad, far away, with a population of half a million—I was given the ambition to write books, and specifically to write novels, which my father had presented to me as the highest form. But books are not created just in the mind. Books are physical objects. To write them, you need a certain kind of sensibility; you need a language, and a certain gift of language; and you need to possess a particular literary form. To get your name on the spine of the created physical object, you need a vast apparatus outside yourself. You need publishers, editors, designers, printers, binder; booksellers, critics, newspapers and magazines and television where the critics can say what they think of the book; and, of course, buyers and readers.

I want to stress this mundane side of things, because it is easy to take it for granted; it is easy to think of writing only in its personal, romantic aspect. Writing is a private act; but the published book, when it starts to live, speaks of the cooperation of a particular kind of society. The society has a certain degree of commercial organization. It also has certain cultural or imaginative needs. It doesn’t believe that all poetry has already been written. It needs new stimuli, new writing; and it has the means of judging the new things that are offered.

This kind of society didn’t exist in Trinidad. It was necessary, therefore, if I was going to be a writer, and live by my books, to travel out to that kind of society where the writing life was possible. This meant, for me at that time, going to England. I was traveling from the periphery, the margin, to what to me was the center; and it was my hope that, at the center, room would be made for me. I was asking a lot—asking, in fact, more of the center than of my own society. The center, after all, had its own interests, its own worldview, its own ideas of what it wanted in novels. And it still does. My subjects were far-off: but a little room was made for me in the England of the 1950s. I was able to become a writer, and to grow in the profession. It took time; I was forty—and had been publishing in England for fifteen years—before a book of mine was seriously published in the United States.

You will understand, then, how important it was to me to know when I was young that I could make this journey from the margin to the center, from Trinidad to London. The ambition to be a writer assumed that this was possible. So, in fact, I was taking it for granted, in spite of my ancestry and Trinidad background, that with another, equally important part of myself, I was part of a larger civilization.

In a famous book, anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss described his attempt to journey so far into the Amazon that he would encounter people untainted by western civilization. He was in search of something purely other, completely alien to western ways. But the people he met at first were all experienced intermediaries, guides who spoke Portuguese and wanted payment in cash, whose notions of their old cultures Lévi-Strauss therefore found suspect. And then when he finally did meet a man who seemed to be the genuine article, a real Native, they were completely unable to communicate. Nobody knew his language, so Lévi-Strauss was unable to find out anything about him.

And this is how I, and I believe Naipaul as well, think about non-western novelists. Obviously writers from Nigeria or Thailand have had different experiences than Europeans or Americans, so their books will not be exactly the same. But the novel is a western creation, and to write one is to take on, in a very deep way, western notions of art, society, character, and storytelling. You cannot learn this peculiar language without taking on its perspective, indeed its morality.  Books by people Arundhati Roy and Vikram Seth are set in India, but so far as I could tell they might as well have been written by well-informed Europeans. The sensibility of their books is not just English but Victorian, obviously the product of a long acquaintance with Austen, Dickens, and Thackeray. 

Once you have learned to be a novelist, you no longer reside entirely in another culture, and you by definition see it differently than a true native does. The same I think is true of memoirs, perhaps even more so.

So, sure, read novels or memoirs from around the world. They will be different, because their authors have lived different lives, and you can learn much from them. And while you're at it read novels by men and women, by people born to wealth and poverty, by engineers and civil servants and drug addicts and explorers. But never imagine that you are really stepping outside your own world; you are still communicating in a language you have long known, and hearing stories and meeting characters you have encountered many times before.

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