Travel Classics 3: V. S. Naipaul

Caribbean storm

Caribbean storm

Destination: Caribbean and British Guiana

Book: The Middle Passage by V. S. Naipaul

Quotable Thursday quote: I’m the kind of writer that people think other people are reading. V. S. Naipaul

The question is, if a man writes well, does it matter what kind of human being he is?

I delayed reading V. S. Naipaul because although he is always listed as one of the great travel writers, excerpts indicated that he is of that school that dwells on the negative wherever he goes.  ( I learned after I read the book, that he is an abuser of women and a racist.)

How, I wondered, could Naipaul be so revered as a writer if his travel writing consistently discouraged going to the places he explored? In order to find my own answer, I would have to read his work.

I bought two books, The Middle Passage (1962), his first travel book, and An Area of Darkness (1964) which relates to his first journey to India. In an introduction to the edition I read,  he introduces The Middle Passage as his first travel book, but it was not his first published work. He had already gained a reputation as a writer of fiction by 1962. I unwittingly picked up the two books which drew the most criticism to Naipaul as non-sympathetic to third-world countries.

For those who want to know more about the man behind the writing, Paul Theroux, former friend turned caustic truth-teller,wrote Sir Vidia’s Shadow in 1998. An authorized biography by Patrick French, The World Is What It Is, was published in 2008 and is no less disturbing, according to Theroux himself in this lengthy piece .

In The Middle Passage, Naipaul writes with the observant eye of a sociologist or anthropologist, but without the scientific detachment. The title refers to the route taken by slave ships between Africa and the Caribbean, and tips off his focus in the book.  His visit to Trinidad (where he grew up), British Guiana, Suriname, Martinique and Jamaica constantly circles back to race relations. Allegedly, he is comparing the effect of colonizers from Britain, France and Holland on the West Indies and the northern edge of South America. In fact, he pretty much lumps the colonizers together and lines up with them.

Although he refers to his family history–India to Trinidad to England–he does not openly acknowledge the personal prejudice this brings to his observations.  In each society he mocks the people in power, but lives with them and complains about hardship, while he claims to be wanting to find out about those on the bottom rung and wondering aloud why they don’t feel more pride.  He seeks out connections to slavery and racial division wherever he goes.

The cynicism wears thin, and yet–a big fat “yet”–I don’t believe I have ever read anyone who could as deftly bring to life a character and a setting.  I could see the buildings, rooms, and people he described.

With his pompous air of superiority, Naipaul is not a person I would want to dwell with on a desert island . (Particularly after reading about the way he has treated the women in his life.) However, that biting intelligence and felicity of expression would make for an interesting dinner party.

And, oh, yes, I am going to read the second book.

Now please let me know if the kind of person an author is in “real life” affects your enjoyment of his or her work? Would you rather just not know? Or do you think it is important to know something of the life of the author in order to understand the work?  Let’s have some exchange of views on this. I know you have an opinion.

Photograph by Vera Marie Badertscher. All rights reserved.

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Filed under Books, Caribbean, Destinations, South America

3 responses to “Travel Classics 3: V. S. Naipaul

  1. I’ve heard much of Naipaul’s astringent personality, but never read anything by him so I can’t really comment in this case. (But here I am commenting. Erm).

    If the style of travel-book is more traditionally aloof, where the author keeps his or her personality as separate from the story as he or she can, then the personality doesn’t matter. But that’s not really what sells nowadays. People want Michael Palins, Pete McCarthys, Bill Brysons. And so they either have to be likeable or very funny, or ideally both. That’s how I see it, anyway.

  2. Travler's Bro

    Re: Your apparent guilt about admiring Naipaul’s writing prowess: What travel writer can possible see a foreign culture through untinted lenses? Of course, as you note, some are so prejudiced as to see through the glass as darkly as possible. We are often warned not to indulge in biographical fallacy (“She’s a black woman so she must think this way…”). But it’s impossible to ignore the author’s backstory, just as it is to pretend to erase our own cultural colorings when we travel. We can hardly enter our next-door-neighbor’s house without dragging along all our prejudices — but we can try. As you know, that’s the travel writer’s greatest challenge, and it’s how we learn about ourselves–our ultimate reason for traveling, after all. Good review of Naipaul, btw.

  3. Interesting review, Vera. (Interesting quote too.)

    I don’t usually bother with a writer’s personality, but I think the person we are affects most, if not all, of what we do. So too with a writer. I guess Lonely Planet kind of travel writing escapes this, but anything else doesn’t.

    Although I didn’t know this really, really dark side of Naipaul’s personal history, I’ve never liked his books. The first one I read was An Area of Darkness, a very long time ago. But I remember thinking the author was a complete pessimist and just saw darkness everywhere. So, well, the author’s personality does spill over into his/her work.

    More recently, I read Among the Believers, mainly because of something in the blurb about the tension between Indonesia’s own culture and the Arab-centric (cultural) influence of Islam. Unfortunately, Naipaul did not develop this idea at all in the book, which had no special insights to offer (in my opinion).

    So, all in all, I find his writings to be rather shallow and far too much influenced by what clearly is a less than charming personality.

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