A Way in the World: A Novel

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Modern Library Revue: #72 A House for Mr. Biswas

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I don’t tend to condemn books solely because the writer was some variety of wretch.  But I have done so if I think it will create a smoke-screen for the fact that I did not understand the book.  For example, the poems of Ezra Pound mystify me, so I make sure to remind people quite needlessly that he was an anti-semitic, Grade A Best Quality fuckwad.  On the other hand, I recently learned that Eric Gill, famous book arts figure, sexually abused members of his family.  Since this revelation, I have scrapped my plans for an Eric Gill tattoo, but I still think his art is beautiful and I look at it from time to time, with a furrowed brow.  It is a very troublesome thing, the space we make in our hearts for the horrible–if they make something we like, that is.  About the creator of a beloved work it is easier for people to be more relaxed, to make hand gestures and say things like “What a man, but what an artist” (cf Of Human Bondage, I think, for the quotation). I’m not looking to sign a Free Polanski petition, but I think I understand the motivation behind (some) of his apologists.

Moving on, several years ago I remember reading Naipaul’s A Way in the World and finding it very boring and hard to understand.  Although, having just this minute skimmed a few reviews, it seems that either I was actually reading a different book altogether, possibly a math textbook, or that I am an incurable philistine.  In fairness, this may have been during one of the still frequent and inexplicable periods in my life when the only things I want to read are A Girl of the Limberlost or Betsy In Spite of Herself (’bout that time now, actually), and should attempt nothing else. (Although I have since this writing completed A Bend in the River, my tepid reaction to which I’ve shared here before.)

Recognizing that V. S. Naipaul is a Distinguished Man of Letters I felt sheepish about not enjoying A Way in the World, but I received a boon in the form of an article about him, one which painted him as a terrible bastard.  So I felt that all was well, and turned my defeat into a victory over sin.  It was in this admirable spirit that I approached A House for Mr. Biswas, disdainful and yet cagy, as you would a fraud you suspect is smarter than you.  My prejudice colored the first third of the book, so that when things got grimly fun and picaresque, I reminded myself that V. S. Naipaul is a jerk.  By the end, though, I had become a quiet convert to the novel’s quiet charms.  By which I do not mean to say that I wish to hold hands with V. S. Naipaul or lie down next to him, rather that I found the story very stirring and sad.  It warmed and then unpleasantly squeezed my small heart.

The novel is about the shortish life of a singular man named Mohun Biswas.  The narrative opens with a prologue, which explains the whole story in a nutshell, and tells us that Mr. Biswas is ill and not long for this world.  Chapter one begins with his birth in a village hut on the island of Trinidad, and the story takes us through the whole circus of his life.  Mr. Biswas is born, he gets hustled into marriage, and for 500 pages he laments his life, has nervous breakdowns of varying degrees of magnitude, and schemes to acquire a house.  He gets the house, it’s miserable and then magical, he gets sick, and dies.  He has four children, lots of jobs, little money, a shitload of inlaws, and the most ornery, pathetic, foolish, cruel and marginally lovable disposition you could imagine.  And I don’t mean he is simply the third-world equivalent to the protagonist of a My Dick novel.  He is something special.  This is not a bildungsroman; it is a Biswasroman.

Although, like I said, I started the novel with an ill will and was disinclined to like anybody in it, I think Naipaul very carefully forged the narrative so that the reader goes through a variety of stages with regard to Mr. Biswas.  You are angry that he is such a pain in the ass and mean to his wife.  You are depressed about his living conditions, even though he is living better than many.  You admit that his life has become unmanageable.   You deny that you are enjoying the book.   You accept that you kind of like Mr. Biswas.  You write V. S. Naipaul a letter apologizing.  Or something like that.  He also lulls you, that V. S. Naipaul, referring to Mr. Biswas as “Mr. Biswas” from page one.  The use of the honorific for someone to whom so little honor is given, but who takes himself so seriously, it tugs at the heart.   There are lots of things that tug at the heart, especially toward the end.  Their son Anand, a clever, touchy bastard like his father, gets third in the school exhibition exams, and I felt so relieved, like I, too, had put all my happiness eggs in his brain basket.  I just wish he had written more letters home once he went off to abroad.

There is something distant, almost cold, about the writing; it doesn’t feel like Naipaul is holding everybody in his hand, rather at arm’s length.  But he must have had some affection for this family to write about them so; maybe it’s a case of being very stern and grumpy with everyone so that you don’t collapse into sniffles.

What a man but what an artist, and all that.

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