V. S. Naipaul’s "Gloomy Clarity" about Africa, and Himself

V. S. Naipaul, in the winter of his long writing life, doesn’t disguise his melancholy or his frailty. Still, his inquisitorial eye and his magic with a prose sentence have not abandoned him, nor the organ tones of his mesmerizing voice. In conversation he relishes my suggestion of magic — his new book on Africa is full of it. But when I cite some favorite examples of his inspired sentence-making, he recalls only hard labor in the cause of “gloomy clarity,” his signature effect. “I wrote that very carefully,” he intones. Of his non-fiction process — combining reading, field observation and interviewing — he says: “I see what is to be done, and I do it.” At a public reading the night before we spoke, the question came: what was the happiest moment of your writing career? “I suppose it would have occurred when one was very young. Because, you know, there are no happy moments now. When you are young the future is a great big ball, and anything is possible. So if you do a good review for The New Statesman and you feel good, it can make you quite happy, although it is a petty business… I know the future is small and eternally shrinking around me.”

Naipaul’s new book is called The Masque of Africa: it’s an inquiry not into politics or progress but into religion broadly: the magical systems of belief in Old Africa. “The new religions, Islam and Christianity, are just on the top,” says a classic Naipaul informant, a lawyer and former university dean in Gabon; his punchline is a perfect short Naipaulian thematic sentence: “Inside us is the forest.” Africa might well be better off today, Naipaul supposes, had its “forest beliefs” been spared foreign intrusions. Africa is a “wounded civilization,” he reflects, applying the phrase he used in one of several books on his ancestral India. But there is no going back, and perhaps no recovery from the loss of self and sovereignty. Naipaul was not at all impressed with my own “fantasy” that in both India and Africa it may be time, for some anyway, to rediscover the village possibilities, the chance that “Things Come Together.” Naipaul himself, of course, fled the colony (Trinidad) for the capital (London) long ago. His verdict is final: “the village is an awful place.”

On his best behavior, V. S. Naipaul knows how to be entertainingly grumpy. He does not forgive the English literary establishment for cold-shouldering him these many years, for snubbing even his Nobel Prize in 2001. He remembers one official personage sniffing: “It isn’t as though it’s the Booker Prize.” He is proud to have marked Tony Blair as a “pirate,” long before the Iraq War. “A calamity,” he judged. Wouldn’t he care, I asked, to offend somebody before we were done? “No, no, no, no,” insisted. “That is not part of my job.”

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  • Pete Crangle

    Thank you Chris. And of course, thank you Mr. Naipaul for your clarity, gloomy though it may be. In addition to clarity, I detect grace in your gloom. Alas, clarity is where we find it, not in how we want it to be presented. Regarding that wonderful portrait of Sir Vidia Naipaul by Paul Emsley, here’s an online gallery of some of his works:

    Paul Emsley Gallery

  • Chris, thank you. You’ve done a masterful job drawing out Naipaul’s inconsistencies and pretentiousness. Naipaul is interesting here, but unfortunately, his views in this book appear to be neither extraordinary or even insightful. I haven’t read the book yet, but his take seems sort of innocuous and somewhat pointless.

    The feeling I always come away from when I go to any part of Africa is warmth. And the comment about the forest being inside their hearts made by the woman from Gabon is quite wonderful. Yes, forests are warm, potentially cozy, with magical and also terrifying parts. But when Naipaul ‘sees’ Africa he comments focus on the terrifying parts, not the warmth and daily magic that seems to help people transcend poverty, build communities, and show their humanity. The houses Naipaul saw in Uganda are homes, but he only sees them as poorly constructed houses.

    Naipaul’s views on India remain odd. They seems to be colored by his encounters with pretentious middle/upper class urbanites. He misses warmth and humanity of the less pretentious not because he over intellectualizes what he sees; but because he sees the world only through prejudiced, navel gazing eyes. How amazing it would be if Naipaul saw people’s warmth and vulnerabilities despite his jaundiced eye, and offered us insights quite unanticipated and unpredicted.

    His comment about the lack of originality in Indian cinema, novels etc is odd. All art is derivative. Would he argue that Matisse and PIcasso should be viewed as unoriginal because they drew so heavily on African imagery and motives? As I listened to him on Africa I could not help remembering the various books about African religions I’ve read, many written by anthropologists. His comment about about how Africans can/do integrate indigenous African philosophies and spirituality with Islam and Christianity is neither particularly original nor insightful.

  • Potter

    I only read the first paragraph of Mr. Pingle’s comment and I have to stop and give mine and then read his in it’s entirety. I was needing the word “pretentiousness”. That is how V.S. Naipaul sounded: pretentious- that deep negative voice challenging Chris’s every question’s supposition, batting away. Contrary. A tough person to interview I thought. But Naipaul endeared himself at the end with his apology. I am okay now.

    We may have a romantic view of village life- but I am going to keep that view also- now remembering Naipaul’s objection.

    The sensibility about the forest in us, forest beliefs, the wounding of civilizations and the way he writes would draw me to his new book.

    Ever the loving person, Chris, you found the description “entertainingly grumpy”. For me not entertaining so much ( I was annoyed until the apology) as thought provoking. Thankful to you again.

  • Perhaps it’s because I am myself quite grumpy that I feel exactly the opposite way about the apology. Certainly, Naipaul seemed difficult to interview (how lucky, I felt, that we have someone quite capable of doing it, for were it me there would only be thirty minutes of very awkward silence!) but only because he wasn’t more willing to say more. I loved hearing what he was willing to say, even when perplexing, and only wish he were more open! To apologize for possibly saying too much, that was what “annoyed” me.

  • When I read The Masque of Africa, the portrait of Winnie Mandela gave me a different opinion of her, a positive change from that of a woman who has been much scorned and vilified.

  • Naipaul depicts quite a different image of Africa in The Masque of Africa from being dirty and hot. Interesting connection he made between Christianity and the strong belief in Africa that there is no separation between the spiritual and physical worlds.

  • I really liked your article.Really thank you! Keep writing.