Burgess and V.S. Naipaul
Sir Vidia Naipaul, who has died at the age of 85, was one of the foremost English-language writers of the late twentieth century. A novelist, memoirist and travel writer, he scoured the globe in search of resonant stories, which he told in a variety of different narrative forms. Born into an Indian family at Chaguanas in Trinidad in 1932, Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul won a scholarship to Oxford University in 1950, and later wrote and presented a series of radio programmes for the BBC Caribbean Service. He published his first novel, The Mystic Masseur, in 1955.
Burgess’s first encounter with Naipaul’s work was a review of A House for Mr Biswas, his longest and most highly acclaimed novel. Writing in the Yorkshire Post on 5 October 1961, Burgess praised this novel as ‘a Caribbean masterpiece’ and ‘a work of great comic power qualified with firm and unsentimental compassion.’ He reiterated these positive statements in his critical book, The Novel Now (published 1967), in which he showed a good working knowledge of Naipaul’s other fiction, such as Miguel Street and Mr Stone and the Knights Companion.
Naipaul and Burgess worked together on a BBC radio programme, The High Noon of Empire, broadcast on 24 July 1965. In a wide-ranging discussion of imperial writing which took in writers such as E.M. Forster and George Orwell, Naipaul compared Burgess in Malaya with Rudyard Kipling in India when he talked about ‘the ambiguous, rather confused elements of imperialism — the commercial element, or the idealistic element — which Kipling had, and an educationalist like yourself had.’ It was clear from these comments that Naipaul had read the three volumes of Burgess’s Malayan Trilogy with careful attention.
Burgess reviewed a number of other novels and non-fiction books by Naipaul in the 1970s and 1980s. He was enthusiastic in his praise for A Bend in the River (1979). Burgess suggested that Naipaul’s novel of migration and dislocation, set in an invented African state, was a reflection on the broader themes of global politics. He declared that Naipaul was ‘good on the whole human situation as it is presented to us now — our inability to govern ourselves, live without apprehension, be happy.’ Identifying a strong element of ‘anticolonialism’ in the novel, Burgess wrote with relish about its evocation of ‘the whole smell of the place where people feed off grubs and caterpillars and monkeys, where the river chokes with weed and the rain brings no relief.’ He concluded that A Bend in the River, which he claimed was Naipaul’s best novel to date, was ‘a quietly brilliant book and very depressing.’ This seems to have been intended as a compliment.
Two years later, Burgess was asked to review a non-fiction book, Among the Believers: An Islamic Journey, for the Observer. This review, his longest critique of Naipaul, appeared under the headline ‘Islam in the Dark’ on 27 September 1981. The book is a chronicle of Naipaul’s journeys among Islamic peoples in Iran, Pakistan, Malaysia and Indonesia. Burgess described Among the Believers as ‘trenchant and melancholy’ and claimed that it was ‘uncoloured by either religious or political preconceptions.’ He was impressed by the account of Iran shortly after the Islamic revolution led by Ayatollah Khomeini: ‘What Naipaul shrewdly notes on his travels is the doublethink of the Islamic leaders. The Koran is the answer to the crumbling West, but its message needs guns, fighter aircraft, and silicon chips. The technology of the West is not regarded as a product of empiricism and free enquiry but as an uncovenanted power which just happens to be around. It is the luxury of oil which enables the ayatollahs to play the great game of finding all the answers in the Koran.’
Only the chapter on Malaysia, where Burgess had lived for three years in the 1950s, was judged to be ‘a disappointment’. When he wrote his review, Burgess had very recently returned from a journey to Malaysia, where he had made a BBC film, A Kind of Failure, about the current state of the country. He disagreed with Naipaul about the significance of the radicalised kampong Malays, interviewed in the book, ‘who evince neither articulacy nor intelligence.’ Burgess maintained that Malaysia was well stocked with educated people, none of whom seemed to be represented in Among the Believers.
As a digression from the book under review, Burgess told the story of his own flirtation with Islam: ‘There was a time, when I lived in Malaya, as it used to be called, when I had a powerful desire to join Islam. My Islamic name had even been chosen for me — Yahya bin Abdullah. But sense prevailed, as well as reproving visions of the prophet the Muslims call Nabi Isa.’
When Naipaul returned to Malaysia to gather material for a second Islamic travel book, Beyond Belief (published in 1998), he visited the Malay College in Kuala Kangsar, where Burgess had been on the staff in the 1950s. The Malay College also forms the backdrop to Burgess’s first published novel, Time for a Tiger (1956).
Burgess’s next review was of Finding the Centre: Two Narratives (1984), published in the TLS under the title ‘Interior Excursions’ and later reprinted in Homage to Qwert Yuiop as ‘Raw Matter’. In this autobiographical fragment, Naipaul describes his formation as a writer thirty years previously when he was working in London. Burgess’s comments on Naipaul’s memoirs might also be read as an account of the time before Burgess himself became a published novelist: ‘When a man considers himself to be a writer before he has written a publishable word, which was, from his boyhood on, V.S. Naipaul’s situation, the moment when the courage to type out the first sentence arrives is momentous. It is always a matter of rhythm rather than lexis, and the rhythm releases that self-knowledge which foretells the subject-matter, style and tone of the whole oeuvre.’
Although he enjoyed Finding the Centre as a vivid evocation of times, places and people, Burgess said that he was already looking forward to Naipaul’s next novel: ‘What Mr Naipaul is really doing [in Finding the Centre] is practising his craft, and practising it well, without having to submit to the burden of the artistic shape.’ Commenting more generally on the development of Naipaul’s writing, Burgess noted that the ‘gentle humour’ of his early books had now been displaced by ‘a sense of grimness’.
Burgess’s final essay about Naipaul was ‘Eye of a Stranger’, a review of The Enigma of Arrival published in the Observer on 15 March 1987. He spent much of the review debating whether or not this series of linked narratives should be regarded as a novel in the strict sense. ‘It reads like an autobiographical meditation, not a novel at all […] If this is not autobiography, it is because it admits more poetry, more descriptive detail, indeed more soul-baring than we expect in a mere bundle of memoirs.’ After debating this point at extravagant length, Burgess was willing to defer to the author’s account of what he was up to: ‘If Naipaul wishes us to accept his book as a novel we will. The description at least imposes a sense of distance and impersonality and, most of all, a pattern.’ Summing up this highly experimental prose narrative, which had been dedicated by Naipaul to the memory of his dead brother and sister, Burgess wrote: ‘It has great dignity, compassion and candour. It is written with the expected beauty and style. It is philosophical and yet it smells of the earth […] Instead of diminishing life Naipaul ennobles it.’
One other encounter between Burgess and Naipaul is worth mentioning. In his novel Beard’s Roman Women (1976), Burgess includes an austere novelist character named P.R. Pathan, who bears at least an onomastic similarity to Naipaul. The fictional Pathan is a literary writer who stands in opposition to the novel’s main character, Ronald Beard, a clapped-out hack who makes his money from writing scripts for Hollywood. Through the interplay of these two characters, the novel attempts to measure the value of literature against more popular forms of culture. It is Pathan who arguably emerges from the comparison with more dignity.
Writing in 1984, Burgess speculated that Naipaul was a strong candidate for the Nobel Prize for Literature. This prophecy was eventually fulfilled when Naipaul was awarded the prize in 2001. In its Nobel Prize citation, the Swedish Academy said that Naipaul had ‘united perceptive narrative and incorruptible scrutiny in works that compel us to see the presence of suppressed histories.’
That is a high-minded way of putting it, but not necessarily a writerly one. When Burgess summed up Naipaul’s achievement, he did so with reference to the specifics of a novel. In his assessment of A Bend in the River, he declared that Naipaul ‘presents the soul of a decent man with a moderate hope in the future, sustaining mild optimism with his reading of encyclopaedias, going to brothels for lack of love, finding love then losing it, eventually losing everything except the will to survive.’
It is fitting that Naipaul should have the last word. In the introduction to Finding the Centre, he writes: ‘However creatively one travels, however deep an experience in childhood or middle age, it takes thought (a sifting of impulses, ideas and references that become multifarious as one grows older) to understand what one has lived through or where one has been.’