RIP, VS Naipaul: A Great Conservative Writer

V.S. Naipaul died on August 9 at his home in London.  Winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2001, Naipaul was one of the great conservative writers of our time.  Among his best known novels are A House for Mr. Biswas, A Bend in the River, and The Enigma of Arrival.  He will be remembered not just for the superb skill as a novelist, but also for his acute analysis of society in Britain, the Caribbean, Latin America, Africa, and India.

The guiding principle of Naipaul's work was always his fierce artistic independence and honesty.  In an era of political correctness in which many writers succumbed to pressure to soften their opinions of political corruption in the postcolonial world, Naipaul brought clarity and understanding to what was happening in Trinidad, Argentina, the Congo, and other developing countries.  He was also one of the first major commentators to speak frankly about the dangers of Islamic extremism.

According to reports, the Nobel Committee was not eager to award its highest accolade to a writer who had fearlessly criticized the failed political culture of developing countries in Africa and Latin America and, at the same time, lauded the democratic capitalism of the West.  Were it not for the sheer scale of Naipaul's achievement as a writer, the prize would never have been awarded to him.  Even so, his critics were quick to denigrate the awarding of the prize, dismissing it as an undeserved honor.

The fact is that the honor was long overdue.  Naipaul was not merely the most accomplished novelist of our time; he was also a social critic who brought common sense to a range of burning issues.  His works include the extraordinary account of his father's life, A House for Mr. Biswas, and the compelling record of his own transplanted existence in Britain, The Enigma of Arrival.

In a dozen other novels, he portrayed the perilous condition of modern life in both the developed and the developing worlds, perilous especially for those who have forsaken their birthright of inherited values or who have never possessed such a birthright to begin with.  His journalistic writing on India and the Middle East changed the way many readers view these regions while his harsh criticism of African corruption, and by implication of the involvement of Western aid workers, intellectuals, and other facilitators, forced a reassessment of the entire postcolonial relationship.

It has not been sufficiently understood, I think, that the basis of Naipaul's great success was his unflinching honesty.  A Bend in the River, his unsparing record of post-liberation tribalism and brutality in central Africa, and of the complicity of those Westerners who facilitated it, was a courageous book published at the height of the rule of political correctness, a period characterized by moral complacence and worse in the African writings of liberals such as Nadine Gordimer.

As Naipaul made clear in A Writer's People, such honesty would not have been possible in the absence of a clear sense of self.  Unfortunately, an unequivocal sense of self is not something most of us are born with.  It must be earned by honest reflection – reflection that requires a great deal of courage in facing the truth of one's own role in the scheme of things.

As Naipaul wrote in A Writer's People, his origins were to be found among "a transplanted peasant India" among a people recruited to serve as indentured laborers in Trinidad.  It was not an easy thing, I suspect, for an ambitious young man to admit that his grandparents had been recruited to a squalid life of service halfway around the globe from their homeland or that his own parents had grown up as members of an impoverished, utterly provincial minority on an inconsequential speck of land in the Caribbean.  This, in any case, was Naipaul's sense of his own background.  But by seeing and accepting it for what it was, a poor thing but his own, the writer gained "a base of feeling and cultural knowledge."  That knowledge was the basis of many of his finest books.

Had Naipaul remained in Trinidad, he would have been a very different writer.  A large part of his "way of seeing," an aspect of his life that made it possible for him to perceive the Caribbean and much else with such lucidity, was derived from a lifetime spent in Britain.  Though he has written of it often, few can really appreciate the author's Herculean effort to establish himself as a writer.  It took decades before Naipaul's writing afforded a comfortable living.  More than monetary success, however, was the enormous cultural reward of Naipaul's labors after emigrating to Britain: the ability to view the moral condition of both Britain and the Caribbean, and beyond this of the West and the world as a whole, with unmatched clarity.

What Naipaul gained was an intense appreciation for the value of liberal democracy.  It is ironic that Naipaul, whose own heritage was quite distinct from that of Britain or America, should have become their foremost defender among contemporary intellectuals.  Within the Western democracies, for all of their moral confusion and waste, there still exists a legacy of tolerance, individual rights, and freedom.  As a cultural outsider, Naipaul was actually in a good position to estimate the value of this legacy and, after his arrival at Oxford as a scholarship student, to register the complacent disregard of many in the First World for these values.

Throughout his long career, Naipaul drew attention to what he termed the "universal civilization" of legal rights, rationality, and opportunity that, having spread from Western Europe to the Americas, Asia, Africa, and even the Middle East, is now the ideal of human beings around the globe.  Sadly, those residing within the cosmopolitan centers of Europe and America are now the least likely to appreciate that invaluable heritage of freedom.  In this respect, as Naipaul put it in A Writer's People, "the people who wrote as though they were at the centre of things might be revealed as the provincials."

Those who failed to appreciate Naipaul's standard of honesty would do well to consider his understanding of the writer's profession.  For Naipaul, this profession entailed a demand for accuracy, candor, and realism.  Now that he is gone, one can only express a great sense of admiration and gratitude.  As Naipaul once told me, he felt no connection whatsoever with the direction of contemporary culture and especially with the work of those writers who promoted themselves as victimized postcolonials.  V.S. Naipaul was far from being just another postcolonial or third-world writer.  He was a great writer working from within the grand tradition of Austen, Dickens, and Conrad, and he should be remembered as the supreme exponent in our time of the inherited values of Western civilization.  In a time when so many were bent on undermining that civilization, Naipaul was a heroic champion of its humane values and civilizing institutions.  He understood the dangers of moral anarchy as few in our time have, and he issued a warning that the loss of those values and institutions would be disastrous and irrevocable.

Dr. Jeffrey Folks taught for thirty years in universities in Europe, America, and Japan.  He has published nine books and several hundred articles on American culture and politics in national journals and newspapers.

Image: Faizul Latif Chowdhury via Wikimedia Commons.

V.S. Naipaul died on August 9 at his home in London.  Winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2001, Naipaul was one of the great conservative writers of our time.  Among his best known novels are A House for Mr. Biswas, A Bend in the River, and The Enigma of Arrival.  He will be remembered not just for the superb skill as a novelist, but also for his acute analysis of society in Britain, the Caribbean, Latin America, Africa, and India.

The guiding principle of Naipaul's work was always his fierce artistic independence and honesty.  In an era of political correctness in which many writers succumbed to pressure to soften their opinions of political corruption in the postcolonial world, Naipaul brought clarity and understanding to what was happening in Trinidad, Argentina, the Congo, and other developing countries.  He was also one of the first major commentators to speak frankly about the dangers of Islamic extremism.

According to reports, the Nobel Committee was not eager to award its highest accolade to a writer who had fearlessly criticized the failed political culture of developing countries in Africa and Latin America and, at the same time, lauded the democratic capitalism of the West.  Were it not for the sheer scale of Naipaul's achievement as a writer, the prize would never have been awarded to him.  Even so, his critics were quick to denigrate the awarding of the prize, dismissing it as an undeserved honor.

The fact is that the honor was long overdue.  Naipaul was not merely the most accomplished novelist of our time; he was also a social critic who brought common sense to a range of burning issues.  His works include the extraordinary account of his father's life, A House for Mr. Biswas, and the compelling record of his own transplanted existence in Britain, The Enigma of Arrival.

In a dozen other novels, he portrayed the perilous condition of modern life in both the developed and the developing worlds, perilous especially for those who have forsaken their birthright of inherited values or who have never possessed such a birthright to begin with.  His journalistic writing on India and the Middle East changed the way many readers view these regions while his harsh criticism of African corruption, and by implication of the involvement of Western aid workers, intellectuals, and other facilitators, forced a reassessment of the entire postcolonial relationship.

It has not been sufficiently understood, I think, that the basis of Naipaul's great success was his unflinching honesty.  A Bend in the River, his unsparing record of post-liberation tribalism and brutality in central Africa, and of the complicity of those Westerners who facilitated it, was a courageous book published at the height of the rule of political correctness, a period characterized by moral complacence and worse in the African writings of liberals such as Nadine Gordimer.

As Naipaul made clear in A Writer's People, such honesty would not have been possible in the absence of a clear sense of self.  Unfortunately, an unequivocal sense of self is not something most of us are born with.  It must be earned by honest reflection – reflection that requires a great deal of courage in facing the truth of one's own role in the scheme of things.

As Naipaul wrote in A Writer's People, his origins were to be found among "a transplanted peasant India" among a people recruited to serve as indentured laborers in Trinidad.  It was not an easy thing, I suspect, for an ambitious young man to admit that his grandparents had been recruited to a squalid life of service halfway around the globe from their homeland or that his own parents had grown up as members of an impoverished, utterly provincial minority on an inconsequential speck of land in the Caribbean.  This, in any case, was Naipaul's sense of his own background.  But by seeing and accepting it for what it was, a poor thing but his own, the writer gained "a base of feeling and cultural knowledge."  That knowledge was the basis of many of his finest books.

Had Naipaul remained in Trinidad, he would have been a very different writer.  A large part of his "way of seeing," an aspect of his life that made it possible for him to perceive the Caribbean and much else with such lucidity, was derived from a lifetime spent in Britain.  Though he has written of it often, few can really appreciate the author's Herculean effort to establish himself as a writer.  It took decades before Naipaul's writing afforded a comfortable living.  More than monetary success, however, was the enormous cultural reward of Naipaul's labors after emigrating to Britain: the ability to view the moral condition of both Britain and the Caribbean, and beyond this of the West and the world as a whole, with unmatched clarity.

What Naipaul gained was an intense appreciation for the value of liberal democracy.  It is ironic that Naipaul, whose own heritage was quite distinct from that of Britain or America, should have become their foremost defender among contemporary intellectuals.  Within the Western democracies, for all of their moral confusion and waste, there still exists a legacy of tolerance, individual rights, and freedom.  As a cultural outsider, Naipaul was actually in a good position to estimate the value of this legacy and, after his arrival at Oxford as a scholarship student, to register the complacent disregard of many in the First World for these values.

Throughout his long career, Naipaul drew attention to what he termed the "universal civilization" of legal rights, rationality, and opportunity that, having spread from Western Europe to the Americas, Asia, Africa, and even the Middle East, is now the ideal of human beings around the globe.  Sadly, those residing within the cosmopolitan centers of Europe and America are now the least likely to appreciate that invaluable heritage of freedom.  In this respect, as Naipaul put it in A Writer's People, "the people who wrote as though they were at the centre of things might be revealed as the provincials."

Those who failed to appreciate Naipaul's standard of honesty would do well to consider his understanding of the writer's profession.  For Naipaul, this profession entailed a demand for accuracy, candor, and realism.  Now that he is gone, one can only express a great sense of admiration and gratitude.  As Naipaul once told me, he felt no connection whatsoever with the direction of contemporary culture and especially with the work of those writers who promoted themselves as victimized postcolonials.  V.S. Naipaul was far from being just another postcolonial or third-world writer.  He was a great writer working from within the grand tradition of Austen, Dickens, and Conrad, and he should be remembered as the supreme exponent in our time of the inherited values of Western civilization.  In a time when so many were bent on undermining that civilization, Naipaul was a heroic champion of its humane values and civilizing institutions.  He understood the dangers of moral anarchy as few in our time have, and he issued a warning that the loss of those values and institutions would be disastrous and irrevocable.

Dr. Jeffrey Folks taught for thirty years in universities in Europe, America, and Japan.  He has published nine books and several hundred articles on American culture and politics in national journals and newspapers.

Image: Faizul Latif Chowdhury via Wikimedia Commons.