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What V. S. Naipaul Taught Me about Posturing

Readers rightly praise V. S. Naipaul’s incandescent prose, his narrative power, and his bracing sense of humor. But for me his art also had another value: Naipaul taught me the value of honesty over posturing. We posture when we pretend to have feelings and opinions that we do not really have. The emotional honesty of art can shatter one’s false persona, and the result is never an unmixed pleasure. T. S. Eliot said of the French novelist Stendhal that some of his scenes “are a terrible humiliation to read, in the understanding of feelings, and human illusions of feeling, that they force upon the reader.” I cannot imagine a better description of what Naipaul’s work does for me: it offers a difficult joy that is often not far from humiliation. In Naipaul’s writing I discover that the noble feelings I frequently pretend to have are only illusions.

Naipaul’s books usually describe a protagonist’s journey of self-discovery as an unflattering process in which he learns unwillingly to discard self-protective lies. In the deeply autobiographical novel, The Enigma of Arrival, Naipaul’s narrator describes the early efforts of a young Trinidadian-Indian to establish himself as a writer. Naipaul’s narrator draws upon his own travel experiences as a young man in the journey from his native Trinidad to England. He tries his best to imitate the cosmopolitan British writers that he knows: Evelyn Waugh, Aldous Huxley, and others. He begins to write a short story called “Gala Night,” based on experiences he had one evening aboard the ship that took him from New York to Southampton. The narrator imagines himself to be witty, urbane, and knowing.

Yet Naipaul’s narrator continually finds himself leaving out experiences too painful and unflattering to write about. The “topic of race,” he says, “formed no part of ‘Gala Night.’ It was too close to my disturbance, my vulnerability, the separation of my two selves. That was not the kind of personality the writer wished to assume; that was not the material he dealt in.”

In drawing upon his own travel experiences, the narrator knows that he is “editing out” events from his memory: “Editing out the airport taxi driver who had overcharged me—the humiliation had been too great.” Editing out the moment he had been asked to share a cabin with a black passenger. The black passenger was offended at being asked to share a room with an Indian: “It’s because I’m colored,” he said, “that you’re putting me with him.” The narrator remembers that he was ashamed: “I was ashamed that, with all my aspirations, with all that I had put into this adventure, this was all that people saw in me—so far from the way I thought of myself, so far from what I wanted for myself.”

Shame. Vulnerability. Humiliation. Unflattering feelings keep breaking into the writer’s self-protective shell, reminding him that he can never hope to be another Evelyn Waugh or Aldous Huxley. He has a more painful and more deeply exposed vocation, and his journey as a writer demands that he relinquish the persona he wants to be for the more unattractive truth about his experiences.

Times have changed, and fewer people now demand that the Indian writer imitate the white man. But if the younger Naipaul had to break free from an entirely too whitewashed image of writing, the older Naipaul found himself equally alienated from a new kind of “post-colonial” novelist, who promotes progressive pieties and falsifies unflattering feelings for the reward of fame and Booker Prizes.

Educated second-generation Indian immigrants like myself know that a certain kind of prestige may well come our way if we can only learn to perform our brown skin in a manner that is pleasing to upper-middle-class whites. Our new temptation is no longer to mimic venerable old Europeans but to learn the jargon of post-colonial studies, or to discuss our hyphenated identity in terms acceptable to gatekeepers. But posturing is posturing, and has nothing to do with the honesty Naipaul demanded of the writer.

When I visited Bangalore, India, for the first time after several years in 2003, I was overwhelmed by the secret shame of not having the experiences or feelings that the world wanted me to have. Rather than provoke in me a joyful rediscovery of my roots, my travels in India filled me with rage and hatred. Bureaucracies were corrupt; the traffic choked me; my visit to temples left me feeling degraded by superstition and credulity. Progressives condemn those who are “self-hating” about their race, but what immigrants, of any generation, have never hated themselves? In my moments of self-hatred and humiliation, the only book that provided me with consolation was my copy of Naipaul’s Overcrowded Barracoon. In the essays of that volume, Naipaul confesses to the feelings of anger and resentment that the confrontation with his own race has provoked in him. When I came home I lied, I postured, and I told everyone about my wonderful trip to India. But despite the role that I was acting for others, my reading of Naipaul unmasked the feelings that I really had.

To cover up the feelings that may lower us in our own eyes, or in the eyes of the world, simply to promote a conventional idea of our experience, is a betrayal of the writer’s mission. Those who condemn Naipaul’s writing on ideological grounds, insisting that he should not have expressed feelings that are contrary to their political positions, have entirely missed the necessary difference between art and ideology. While ideologues seek approbation from the world for their feelings and opinions, artists must be faithful to their experience, and remind us that our flattering self-image may well be an illusion.

For this reason I have always found it wrong to hear Naipaul’s books praised for being “magisterial.” A king, a judge, or a statesman can indeed be “magisterial.” But such artists as Tolstoy, Shakespeare, or Naipaul rarely are. On the contrary, they are often exposed, and even embarrassingly naked. The refusal of self-protection in their art reminds us that true self-knowledge does not come without a painful emotional labor. On the occasion of Naipaul’s death, I want to acknowledge the profound gift that his honest labor has offered me.

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