La longue vie après la mort des Biswas de Naipaul : The Sun Nigeria

De Missang Oyongha

Trinité par cas de naissance, indien par arbre généalogique, anglais par choix de domicile, VS Naipaul était d’instinct darwinien. Il était très occupé des débuts, des récits des origines, des causes premières qui expliquaient l’individu. Brillant au collège et célébré par ses pairs, il s’est rapidement adapté à un régime d’admiration. A douze ans, il rêvait d’un vol migratoire depuis la “petite, lointaine, insignifiante” Trinidad. Un camarade, il a fait confiance à la sélection naturelle pour soutenir son saut du port provincial d’Espagne à l’Imperial Oxford. Nourrissant un fantasme de domination, il écrit à son père depuis l’Angleterre qu’il veut « battre les Anglais dans leur langue », comme si la simple aisance ne suffisait pas, comme si les jeux de mots étaient un sport de spectateur, le jeu d’épée.

Libéré de la nostalgie, Naipaul est devenu un cosmopolite impitoyable qui a insisté, comme un puzzle temporel et biologique, sur le fait qu’il était “sans passé, sans ancêtres”. A Trinidad, il s’était senti abandonné par l’accord contractuel qui avait fait venir ses grands-parents d’Inde pour travailler dans les plantations de canne à sucre. En Angleterre, son indianité le rendait différent, vulnérable, voire exotique ; son talent lui a donné une sorte de carapace. En visitant l’Inde pour la première fois dans les années 1960, il s’est retrouvé refusé “une qualité particulière de réponse” – le visage qui avait été caractéristique à Londres est devenu simplement prosaïque à Bombay. William James pensait que son frère Henry n’appartenait qu’à la tribu de la famille Giacomo. Bien sûr, Henry James était américain de naissance, européen de culture baptême et anglais pour la transplantation. VS ce n’est qu’accessoirement qu’il était un Naipaul; être Trinidad « c’était une erreur » ; en fait, Naipaul s’est auto-modélisé pour résister au classicisme, une tribu d’un.

Convaincu de la noblesse, de la sienne vocation, Naipaul a étouffé la pulsion naturelle en faveur des enfants depuis l’impulsion acquise à écrire. Il a courtisé l’extinction de sa branche, en sécurité dans sachant qu’elle serait perpétuée par ses livres. D’autres écrivains, à part son père, Seepersad, étaient des créatures périphériques ; les écrivains, en particulier, étaient une forme de vie résiduelle. Les premières lignes glaçantes de Un coude dans la rivière (1979) faire référence à “des hommes qui ne sont rien, des hommes qui se laissent devenir rien”. Dans des interviews, il est tombé sur Naipaul qui a écrit ces mots comme un homme qui, à force de belle prose, sinon à force de dents et de griffes, avait surmonté lui-même l’anonymat et les désagréments.

Il avait une belle collection d’art indien. Comme von Humboldt Fleischer de Bellow, il ne semblait pas avoir de vieux amis, “juste d’anciens amis”. Il expliquait souvent son travail en termes de hasard, d’intuition (“Chaque livre m’étonnait”) et pourtant l’homme qui “n’a exercé aucune autre profession”, qui a confié à sa première femme Patricia qui était la mariée idéale pour un « futur grand vieillard des lettres » doit avoir eu une conscience aiguë de la forme téléologique de sa vie et certain de sa place historiquement inévitable.

Une moitié il y a un siècle, Karl Miller a insisté sur le fait que “le culte de Naipau ne pouvait pas exister”. Malgré toute sa gamme, il n’y avait aucune trace d’avant-garde dans l’écriture de Naipaul. Il semblait peu probable qu’il ait attiré l’obsession, l’imitation et l’élection au haut sacerdoce que les écrivains d’avant-garde prétendaient être dus. Miller écrivait en 1967, dans la première décennie de la carrière d’écrivain de Naipaul. Cette carrière avait commencé par trois petites et belles déclarations de talent, puis libérée chez Catholique, arcs d’histoire brillants [ A House for Mr Biswas, The Mimic Men),   history [The Loss of El Dorado)  and travel reportage [The Middle Passage,  An Area of Darkness). Naipaul’s  themes were coalescing, book by book :cultural alienation, half-formed societies, the postcolonial world and its discontents, exile, India, personal history.

By the late 1960s, a Naipaul admiration  society, but no cult, was forming in the British literary pages, among commissioning editors, and in the writing prize committees. Miguel Street had been awarded, in 1959, the first Somerset Maugham prize given to a non-European writer. The Mimic Men won the W. H. Smith Award in 1968 . When The Middle Passage was published, in 1962, Evelyn Waugh reviewed Naipaul, publicly, with a right-handed salute to his “exquisite mastery of the English language”.  Later on, Waugh would review Naipaul, to Nancy  Mitford, in  left- handed terms, as “that clever little nigger” who had just won another literary prize. Naipaul’s public persona was equally hardening into relief in  the foreground of his prose. He was the presiding brahmin of a finishing school for snobs. He was the exile who felt existentially wronged by being born  in Trinidad; the student who had found his Oxford reading list inadequate;  the traveller who couldn’t bear Indian hotels, or Indian squalor;  the reader who pronounced  himself distinctly unimpressed by the novelistic gifts of Austen, Hardy, James, Conrad, and “almost every contemporary French novelist’.  I am put in mind, rehearsing the above, of the irascible Russian novelist Vladimir Brusiloff in P. G. Wodehouse’s story,  “The Clicking  of  Cuthbert”,  who declares to the hapless Raymond Parsloe  Devine of  the Wood Hills Literary Society: “No novelists any good except me. Sovietski yah! Nastikoff – bah!  I spit me of zem all”.

In the 1970s, a Naipaul admiration society, but still no cult, began to form in America. C L R James told an interviewer in 1980 that Naipaul’s reputation in this period was essentially an American one. What Edward Said later disparaged as  ‘ epistles to Hampstead and the Upper East Side “appeared regularly in  the New York Review of Books.  In a 1968 NYRB piece on The Mimic Men  V. S., Pritchett  had hailed  Naipaul as “a virtuoso”, and “a brilliant chameleon from the Caribbean”. When Naipaul himself began to write for the NYRB,  he reported from Mobutu’s Zaire, Uruguay, Peron’s Argentina, the Argentina too of  Jorge Luis Borges. In “Borges and the Bogus Past”, Naipaul would uncharitably chide the blind Borges for his perceived failures of  political vision, for his “ancestor worship”. Naipaul’s essays were written ultimately as forensic accounts, a genre whose glories are morbid curiosity, blunt-force candour, detachment, and a fascination with dissection of people and places. The Killings in Trinidad was a noirish real-life story from Naipaul’s native island. It was a tour-de-force  of storytelling and characterisation in which Naipaul appears to have seen clinically through the curious mystique of a murderer, seen through the tragic delusions of white liberal chic.   He saw everything”, is Andre Parent’s admiring  summation, when S. Prasad, the novelist character based on Naipaul in Paul Theroux’s My Secret History (1989), has swiftly deduced the female sex and Italian origins  of a correspondent from  West Africa merely by peering at the handwriting on the envelope.

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When Miller wrote his essay in 1967, Naipaul was four years from winning the Booker Prize for In A Free State, but there were already intimations of the symbolic plumage to come  : the book-length studies of his work, the knighthood, the Jerusalem Prize, the David Cohen Prize,  the Nobel.  Theroux’s Andre Parent noted of the fictional  S. Prasad that, in London, “his hotel and restaurant reservations often appeared in the name ‘Sir Arch Prasad’, which pleased him”. He was not yet Sir Vidia, but he was certainly seeming patrician in advance. Naipaul’s work was beginning to appear  like the “fragments of a great confession”, in Goethe’s phrase. What we may consider the seven deadly sins of Naipaul’s personal theology were being invoked in testament after testament from the Third World  : emptiness, faith, fantasy, fundamentalism, mimicry, rage, resentment.  A House for  Mr Biswas was increasingly being described, by critics and fellow writers, as a masterpiece.

Making an actuarial, rather than an aesthetic argument for reading fiction, Naipaul wrote in the 1960s that “no novel which has lasted a hundred years can fail to give pleasure” . It is as well that he admitted that his judgement was provisional. In the mere sixty years since it was first published an admiration society has formed around A House for Mr Biswas. This fascination persists, because the novel is above all a great work of literature, and only incidentally a tool for literary theorists and biographical sleuths.. It has had a long afterlife, more often mentioned often mentioned in praise than Naipaul’s other novels.

In 2019, it was named by the BBC on its list of the one hundred most influential novels. In 2018, Barack Obama lauded it as one of the best books on his reading list that year. In 2013, the Naipaul House and Literary Museum opened in Port of Spain, Trinidad. It is housed in the actual building on Nepaul street that inspired the  fictional house on Sikkim Street. The house had been restored by a group of admirers called the Friends of Mr Biswas.  (Perhaps Friends of Sir Naipaul would have run the risk of oxymoron?).

In 2009, the novel was included in a selection of twenty modern classics by the Irish Independent. A House for Mr Biswas was dramatised in two parts by BBC Radio Four in 2006. When the Swedish  Academy awarded Naipaul the 2001 Nobel Prize in Literature, James Wood argued in The New Republic that the honour ought to reward, perforce A House for Mr Biswas, and not Naipaul’s controversial books on Islamic societies, the Nobel citation praised A House for Mr Biswas as ” one  of those singular novels that seem to constitute their own complete universes”.  In a 1981 essay on the occasion of the twentieth anniversary of its publication, Naipaul wrote: “Ofl all my books A House for Mr Biswas is the one closest to to me. It is the most personal, created out of what I saw and felt as a child”.  Paul Theroux, in his seminal 1972 study of Naipaul’s writing asked  “Where in fiction is another Ganesh, or another Mr Biswas ?”  Derek Walcott, future former friend of Naipaul’s,  wrote a review in the Trinidad Guardian in November 1961, hailing A House for Mr Biswas as a great new novel of the West Indies.  C LR James recalled getting into an argument with George Lamming over whether Selvon  or Naipaul was the better writer. After Lamming read A House for Mr Biswas, he is reputed to have called Naipaul and said to him, “I have just read A House for Mr Biswas.  I  think it is a masterpiece”.

Naipaul believed that A House for Mr. Biswas would make a good film, because, in justifiable self-homage,  the dialogue had already been written. Naipaul’s sense of drama, his evocative scene-setting and his pictorial breadth and depth, are much in evidence in the novel. Novels are of course written to be read and visualised, imagined into being. A film of the novel would, thus, be a logical  afterlife for the work of art in the age  of cinematic reproduction.

For me, the passage that lends itself most tellingly to cinematic transfer comes when Mr Biswas buys a new suit and chooses to display it by going tothe Oval to watch a cricket match. He has never previously taken an interest in the game, or any aptitude for sport at all. He arrives at the Oval, dandied to the nines, with his fifty-stick cigarette tin in hand.  He does not wish to ‘derange the hang’ of the suit by stuffing it with his smoking gear. The match is about  to end, but Mr Biswas does not know it, as he makes his way with polite excuse-mes through the crowd  on the stands. The final whistle is blown, Mr. Biswas stands up to applaud with the roaring  crowd, makes his way out again, and rides his bicyde home. The journey to the Oval has been its own reward.

It is a scene ripe for incidental music, tracking shots, close-ups, a dialogue- free sequence of images, and a final aerial shot of Mr Biswas cycling away through the evening streets of Port of Spain.  It is dramatic action untethered to plot but deeply emblematic of character —Walter Benjamin, admittedly writing about history, not fiction, praised the chronicler who chooses not to winnow away minor events in his narration of the past.

In the novel, the scene does not seem like a ridiculous affectation of gentlemanliness —Mr Biswas, shouldering his way through the crowd, is not aiming for the feline elan of the social climber. Instead it should be seen as a piece of self-consolatory theatre; one man’s solitary stand in a world where “despite  Marcus Aurelius”,  despite Mohun Biswas’s sometime hope that “some nobler purpose awaited him”,   the vexed course of his life must constitute its own reward.

Missang Oyongha, Lagos, Nigeria: [email protected]

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