November 17, 2013 John Drabinski

Writing, place, tradition

In “Reading and Writing,” there is a short meditation on Joseph Conrad’s work, work with which he feels a surprising and almost elliptical affinity, and Naipaul there turns to autobiography in order to describe the relationship between reading and a sense of place. This is important because it inscribes the question of place – what it means to belong, and therefore to flourish outside conditions of inexorable alienation (colonialism’s cultural effect), but also what it means to be adrift in alienation – in language and storytelling. Writing and reading both reflect and create a sense of connection or disconnection to the world; in a word, writing and reading are ideological in the very same measure as they are existential (can we really separate the ideological and the existential under colonialism and in its wake?). Naipaul writes:

But when I went to the books themselves I found it hard to go beyond what had been read to me. What I already knew was magical; what I tried to read on my own was very far away. The language was too hard; I lost my way in social or historical detail…When it came to the modern writers their stress on their own personalities shut me out: I couldn’t pretend to be Maugham in London or Huxley or Ackerley in India.

I wished to be a writer. But together with the wish there had come the knowledge that the literature that had given me the wish came from another world, far away from our own. (“Reading and Writing: A Personal Account,” 6)

This distance becomes for Naipaul question of audience, but it is here a question of how to understand literature, influence, and culture as the precondition of writing. Reading makes writing, not in that one needs to see exactly oneself in order to write without alienation (that’s much too strong), but that a sense of how and why one belongs to a place and in a tradition is crucial. In “Conrad’s Darkness and Mine,” an essay devoted exclusively to Conrad’s work, Naipaul revisits the theme:

To be a colonial was to know a kind of security; it was to inhabit a fixed world. And I suppose that in my fantasy I had seen myself coming to England as to some purely literary region, where, untrammeled by the accidents of history or background, I could make a romantic career for myself as a writer. But in the new world I felt that ground move below me. (“Conrad’s Darkness and Mine,” 170)

This passage describes, in particular, Naipaul’s time at Oxford and shortly after, where his life was an utter failure, but it also describes how that particular moment embodies the larger question of the Antilles, colonialism, and the possibility of writing. And then, elsewhere in the same essay:

 It came to me that the great novelists wrote about highly organized societies. I had no such society; I couldn’t share the assumptions of the writers; I didn’t see my world reflected in theirs. My colonial world was more mixed and secondhand, and more restricted. (“Conrad’s Darkness and Mine,” 168)

This last description is revealing and instructive, of course. The mixed character of the colonial world is akin to Fanon’s description (in the voice of a wounded soldier) of that world, and being black within it, as an amputation. The ideology of purity orients both Naipaul and Fanon, and they distinguish themselves from Césaire – whose relation to that same ideology produces the mourning that becomes Négritude – by the untreatable melancholy of Naipaul’s reflections on place and the radical optimism in Fanon’s imagination of a future. Naipaul’s melancholy, and we can see this in the famous account of the Tulsis family home’s decay and its oppressive disorder, is linked to a sense of ruin without promise; place, alienation, and death come from history, the house collapses, and so Mr. Biswas imagines a house of his own. Fanon’s description of Martiniquans as “an ironic people” has identical resonance. Ironic, never sincere, the cultural and psychological space of Fanon’s West Indies is unrooted and, in its unrooting, unproductive of anything other than alienated mimicry (think here of his reflections on diction in Black Skin, White Masks).

As well as the parallel description of place – with all the implications of history and memory – this is also a question that directed so much reflection in the 1950s and 1960s in the Caribbean: what is an audience? And, particularly, what is an audience in colonized space for the anti- or post-colonial writer? To where does that writer write? Thus, the questions I explored previously.

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