the Naipaulian mask


In her great poem “Questions of Travel”, Elizabeth Bishop outlines the quandary that all long-distance travellers put to themselves at some stage of their journey: “Should we have stayed at home and thought of here? . . . Is it right to be watching strangers in a play / in this strangest of theatres?” It’s a good question for an elderly novelist pondering a trip to Africa to revisit some of the places that inspired his earlier work. It’s one that Evelyn Waugh might have asked himself in 1959 as he set off for East Africa; one he might have reiterated as he wrote up his journey in what became A Tourist in Africa (1960) – a book that even the most fervent Waugh admirers consider his laziest and worst. Similarly, Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul, born in Trinidad in 1932, knight of the realm, laureate of the Nobel Prize for Literature, might also have questioned himself in 2008 as he prepared to leave for Uganda and other African countries, West and South, unifying his peregrinations under the vague subtitle “Glimpses of African belief”. In fact, the comparisons with Waugh don’t need to end there: it’s an interesting thought-experiment to look at the two writers’ careers and to consider V. S. Naipaul as a kind of Caribbean Waugh. Both were precocious schoolboys who won scholarships to Oxford. Waugh was a distinctively small man – so is Naipaul: both around five foot, six inches. Both took bad degrees and in the doldrums of their post-Oxford lives half-heartedly attempted suicide (Waugh by drowning, Naipaul by gassing). Their early novels were brilliantly original comic satires before the later work assumed more gravitas and the humour diminished. And in their personas, also, both men reinvented themselves in early middle age and took to wearing masks, masks that eventually “ate into the face”. In these masks they delighted in expressing outrageous, unfashionable, ultra-right-wing opinions and the more the metropolitan intelligentsia howled and railed at them the more gleeful they were. Both men, late in their lives, went to Africa to write a travel book.

more from William Boyd at the TLS here.