The Painful Sum of Things
On V. S. Naipaul
The writer V. S. Naipaul died on August 11, 2018, at the age of 85. The correspondence below took place over the following week.
I saw the news about Naipaul. I was expecting it: I had heard he was seriously ailing as far back as 2015, and since then I have returned intermittently to his books, rereading several, with a strange uneasiness or sense of preparation.
Now that he has died, the preparation feels insufficient: the uneasiness remains. I suspect you feel it as well: how to speak about a writer whose work has been meaningful — in my case, profoundly so; I could not imagine my life without it — as well as a source of frustration or real pain. I have admired Naipaul as much as I have found him difficult to admire, a murky admixture that I find difficult to explain or clarify, and which I find with no other writer to anything like the same degree. (Edward Said referred to his “pain and admiration,” and dissonant phrases of that kind are scattered through appreciations of his work.) I know, too, that you knew him, which I did not. I don’t know if that makes him more or less difficult to appraise.
Perhaps it would have been better for me to work all this out before he died, but since it gives an occasion like no other, I thought I’d write you.
Yes, I thought several times in recent years while hearing news of his ill health: I should write something, put together a more complex record of my debt to him, and also of the ways in which his vision was constricted and constricting. For many aspiring writers from modest backgrounds, in the West as well as in Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean, he was the first writer who made us think that we, too, had something to say, and that we, too, had an intellectual claim upon the world. He was a great enabler in this sense, starting the underconfident and less resourceful among us on long journeys. In societies and cultures where the idea of a whole life devoted to writing and thinking is confined to the privileged members of the population, Naipaul’s example — that of a man making himself a writer through sheer effort — was a great boost. His novelistic gifts were so great, endowing even very minor characters in A House for Mr. Biswas and A Bend in the River with dignity. His harsh critiques of India, in particular, and postcolonial societies, in general, came