A Way in the World V S Naipaul

Worth, Robert

LOOKING DOWN AT HIS LIFE A WAY IN THE WORLD V. S. Naipaul Knopf, $23, 380 pp Robert Worth Fiction and autobiography have never been entirely separate genres, and in his latest book V S...

...The only thing holding A Way in the World together is Naipaul himself...
...He is a great man, with a great lmagma28 tion, so the book is a good one But he could write a better book, if only he would put his own struggles aside, step away from the stage, and recover the humble storytelling skills that made his reputation in the first place...
...But to ignore the amenities of fiction is to risk giving up on fiction altogether...
...His first few novels, culminating in the bnlhant A House for Mr Biswas (1961), are comic accounts of life in Trinidad with a bitter edge to them there is no escape from the sordid irrelevance of these lives That bitterness became more palpable in Naipaul' s later books, many of them nonfictional, in which he traveled to India, Africa, South America, and the Caribbean...
...A Way in the World ends with a moving account of his own thoughts about a man named Blair, a black Tnnidadian whom he had known as a boy, and whose murder in East Africa seems a horrible betrayal of his life and work...
...one has the sense that Naipaul has gotten earned away and left his readers behind And this failing is linked to a larger flaw in Naipaul's work...
...He has often expressed scorn for the facilities of mere plot and style, and for the readers who expect such things That scorn is a by-product of Naipaul's own austere concern with history, with truth, with fidelity to expenence...
...The opening of the book has an irrevocable quality, the words flowing out like a broadening river delta, in a style so simple that it seems no style at all And this despite the narrator's admissions about his own tortuous progress as a writer, his engagements with politics, his often harsh judgments of other writers...
...Where Western leftists had applauded the third world's liberation from colonialism and looked with hope toward the future, Naipaul chronicled the present with an unremitting eye for corruption and savagery In his travel books of the 1970s and in the fiction that grew out of them, including the extraordinary A Bend in the River (1979), he displayed no sentimental affection for the precolonial cultures of his subjects They are difficult books to read, fraught with a prophetic sense of chaos and futility andóat timesówith an almost misanthropic fastidiousness They earned Naipaul the wrath of left-wing critics like Edward Said, who called him a "scavenger" among the ruins of empire But Naipaul was quick to respond that optimism is easy for those who can catch a plane home and forget what they have seen "I do not have the tenderness more secure people can have toward bush people," he once told an interviewer His writing was vivid precisely because it registered the fear of an exile who could not take his firstworld status for granted In a sense, A Way in the World represents an elaborate return to the Caribbean of Naipaul's youth, an effort to do fulljustice where he had once offered bitter comedy and harsh political appraisal As the narrator says of his younger self "his judgments, the angle of his observations, his jokes suggested he knew another, better world That phantom world, which came with the first, innocent wish to be a writer, was hard to get nd of...
...These questions resonate throughout history in Naipaul's imagination, and the most unusual parts of A Way in the World are the extended historical fantasies about Sir Walter Raleigh and Francisco Miranda, whose adventures in the West Indies are presented as unwritten stones that linger in the narrator' s mind At times, this self-conscious method makes for a good dramatic vehicle' a man, after a life of wandering and exile, ponders his roots But the historical fantasies go on too long, becoming dry and monotonous...
...There is the story of LeBrun, for instance, a black Marxist from Trinidad who is clearly based on the activist and wnter C. L R James Naipaul writes with disarming honesty of the effect LeBrun's criticisms have on his own writing, and he shows a persistent sympathy for the man, as a fellow exile in England, despite his utter disaffection from LeBrun's radical politics In the end, without withdrawing from his judgments, he writes passionately about LeBrun's struggle The profile-writers and television interviewers, who promoted him with self-conscious virtue had no means of understanding or assessing a man who had been born early in the century into a very hard world, whose intellectual growth had at every stage been accompanied by a growing rawness of sensibility, and whose political resolutions, expressing the wish not to go mad, had been in the nature of spiritual struggles, occurring in the depths of his being Here and elsewhere in the book, Naipaul appears to be writing about himself in oblique ways As in his last book, The Enigma of Arrival (1987), he is interested in death, in the ways a life's ending can be true or false to the spint of that life...
...Naipaul's first triumph, in other words, is one of tone he seems to be looking down at his own life from above, seeking the significance of every human encounter he perceives or imagines from the grand, celestial chair of History Naipaul's subject is familiar the chaos of life and politics in the postcolomal third world Born in Trinidad to an East Indian family, Naipaul was at a double remove from the England where he arrived as a young man with literary ambitions...
...Naipaul has not, however, changed his views, he has merely shifted his vehicle, undertaking a Proustian exploration of his own life and heritage The new voice that emerges is gentler, more sympathetic than anything in NaipauFs prior work And he uses that voice to write about other people, both living and dead, whose lives have intersected with his own...
...LOOKING DOWN AT HIS LIFE A WAY IN THE WORLD V. S. Naipaul Knopf, $23, 380 pp Robert Worth Fiction and autobiography have never been entirely separate genres, and in his latest book V S Naipaul walks that perilous line more closely than he ever has before A Way in the World is less a novel than a grand, fictionalized meditation on Naipaul's colonial heritage and his life as a writer...

Vol. 121 • September 1994 • No. 15


 
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