Stuff I’m Reading: A Bend in the River, by V.S. Naipaul

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12/10/2008 5:45 PM |

Sadly very few editions of this book are as pretty as the tattered early hardcover edition I picked up at the Housing Works Open Air Book Fair.

It seemed appropriate to read A Bend in the River, with the first lines of one of Sir Vidia’s acknowledged masterpieces the source of the title of Patrick French’s new authorized biography — you know, that one revealing in full detail what anyone paying attention long ago intuited, that the Nobel-winning Naipaul is one of the worst humans now living (hey, turns out the graphic mistress-battering scene in this book is barely fictionalized autobiography!).

I probably would not have known that this was a great book, had I not read a lot of people who talk about it like it is.

I have, undoubtedly, gotten a lot out of this book’s portrait of post-colonial Africa (in an unknown country that’s probably Zaire); it’s hard to create, or rather recreate, the known world for a reader, in such a way that we can understand the geography, society, architecture, politics, of a place over time just by following the narrative through it; this is a full-bodied portrait of what it looked like and felt like and how it worked.

It’s also an occasionally moving, or at least powerfully enervating book, when it deals — as it often does — with the gnawing sense that life is elsewhere. This dogs almost all the book’s characters, regardless of their station, throughout the book. The last lines, too, imply a great mass of people struggling for a brief moment of centrality.

But it’s that sense (sometimes shown, often pretty bluntly told) of life being elsewhere that gets to the heart of the Naipaul problem. People who’ve been reviewing the new biography have had to play with the whole great artist [sic?]-bad man conundrum — except for James Wood, who seems to intuit that Naipaul’s sense of aggravation (for instance, speaking out viciously against almost all writers you or I would claim as great) is at the heart of his work, the personal is political.

In his life as well as his work, colonized world is squalid and ignorant, and the colonizers are crushing and arrogant; as a third-world citizen who transcended his station and became a great English novelist, Naipaul has the right to pass supreme judgment on both worlds. That comes through quite a bit here, in the representatives of Europe and America’s fatuous ignorance of the real life of the continent; and the narrator’s not-quite-in-character condescension to the Africans, and some assumptions made by the book’s structure (and certain mitigating concerns that are ignored).

But, of course, Naipaul did transcend his station — he got out. Wood quotes a letter that French uses: “I want to come top of my group. I have got to show these people that I can beat them at their own language.”

He was ultimately successful, the Nobel and all that. Thus, the right to stand in judgment. (The first lines of A Bend in the River: “The world is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it.”)

The problem is that A Bend in the River reads like a book that was willed into existence, and Greatness. (Apparently Naipaul consciously set out to write a Big Book About Africa.) We’re carried through these great social changes, and different classes of people, and the people we encounter are less characters than symbolic placeholders. Naipaul gives people long monologues of first-person sociological journalism; when he reintroduces a motif or creates a thematic parallel. Andrew Sarris, complaining about the aesthetic of godliness invading certain long-take-favoring directors, once complained, “With Ophüls and Mizoguchi, the camera follows the characters, whereas with Angelopoulos and Kubrick, the characters follow the camera.” That’s how I feel about A Bend in the River — the characters follow the camera.