Civilization and Naipaul
by Bruce Bewer

Last December, on the day after being presented with the Nobel Prize for Literature, V. S. Naipaul sat down in Stockholm for a televised conversation with three fellow literary laureates, Günter Grass, Nadine Gordimer, and Seamus Heaney, and with Per Wästberg, a member of the Swedish Academy. One might have expected that the topic under discussion would be writing and literature, but the Nobelists soon turned to politics. Naipaul, alone in resisting this direction, protested that he is not political: he just writes about people. “Perhaps that’s too frivolous,” he suggested slyly. Gordimer, perhaps failing to understand that there was more than a little irony in the air, and that in Naipaul’s view writing about people, far from being frivolous, is in fact precisely what a serious writer does, was quick to challenge his self-characterization, insisting: “Your very existence as a boy living under colonial rule in Trinidad was political!”

This was, needless to say, meant as praise. To many members of the literary (and academic) establishment, after all, colonialism is the paramount literary theme and political issue of our time, and to be a child growing up in a colonial setting is to fill a strictly defined role in a familiar morality play. It is to be a victim, and thus a figure of virtue—and thus, of course, political. And to be political is to be serious. (In such circles, indeed, politics is the ultimate seriousness.) For Naipaul, contrarily, who was that boy in Trinidad (he was born in Chaguanas, a village of 1500 that his father sardonically called “the peasants’ paradise”), and who would certainly place colonialism at the head of his own list of literary themes, to be truly serious is to transcend the merely political. To be serious is to notice and remember the specifics, the contradictions, the ambiguities—to honor the whole human person rather than to reduce him or her to a one-dimensional symbol of virtuous victimhood or (for that matter) anything else. It is to tell the truth about the world, however much that truth may confound ideology, rather than (as Naipaul himself put it in his Nobel Prize speech) to turn “living issues into abstractions.”

Naipaul, born in 1932, has honored the human from the very beginning—though at the beginning, to be sure, he did it largely with humor. His first book, The Mystic Masseur—which was published in 1957, seven years after his emigration to England (where he still lives)—is a brief, hilarious tour de force about Ganesh Ramsumair, a bumptious, good-natured young Trinidadian of modest education and limited spiritual proclivities who stumbles into a successful career as a holy man and healer (and, eventually, a national political leader).1 It sounds like a racket, but the naive, sincere, and rather innocent Ganesh isn’t really out to con—a fact that only makes the whole thing funnier. (As a character in Breakfast at Tiffany’s says of Holly Golightly: “She’s a phony. But she’s a real phony. You know why? Because she honestly believes all this phony junk she believes in.”) The book, which in some respects brings to mind Joyce Cary’s classic Mister Johnson, is a pitch-perfect feast of Trinidadian dialect and captures aspects of that island’s culture with an irony that sometimes amuses—

He never saw Leela again until the night of their wedding, and both he and Ramlogan pretended he had never seen her at all, because they were both good Hindus and knew it was wrong for a man to see his wife before marriage.

—and sometimes stings:

Leela continued to cry and Ganesh loosened his leather belt and beat her.

It was their first beating, a formal affair done without anger on Ganesh’s part or resentment on Leela’s; and although it formed no part of the marriage ceremony itself, it meant much to both of them. It meant that they had grown up and become independent. Ganesh had become a man; Leela a wife as privileged as any other big woman. Now she too would have tales to tell of her husband’s beatings; and when she went home she would be able to look sad and sullen as every woman should.

The moment was precious.

Three more volumes of Trinidad fiction followed. After The Suffrage of Elvira (1958), another satirical yarn, and Miguel Street (1959),2 a linked sequence of Chekhovian character sketches, Naipaul published the most splendid book of his entire career: A House for Mr. Biswas (1961).3 A chronicle of one man’s life from birth to his death at age forty-six, it is partially based on the life of Naipaul’s own father, Seepersad Naipaul, who grew up in a destitute Hindu family in an obscure Trinidad village and ended up a journalist in Port au Prince who sent his sons to Oxford. Naive, irresolute, timid, and baffled by life, yet at the same time sharp, opinionated, temperamental, and derisively witty, Mr. Biswas spends most of his life under the thumb of his despised, domineering in-laws, who provide him with both a job and a roof over his head. He longs for a house of his own; and it is this longing that, in the end, defines his life.

The portrait of Mr. Biswas in this substantial novel is, astonishingly, without a trace of sentimentality (an accomplishment which will especially impress anyone who reads Between Father and Son,4 an affecting collection of letters between the young Naipaul and his father which reveal their deep love for each other); and the portrait of Trinidad is even richer than in The Mystic Masseur. The lush landscape, the shabby dwellings, the stifling lack of cultural stimulation, the sundry traditions, hypocrisies, superstitions, rituals, and pretensions that make up a great deal of the island’s common culture: Naipaul brings it all to life with remarkable elegance and precision. He captures the ambiguous relationship of Trinidadians to England and to the English language (which, for many of them, both is and isn’t their native tongue) as well as their feeling of awesome distance from the great world, their images of which are shaped mostly by American movies. (After his brother-in-law returns from England and does some name-dropping, Biswas goes to bed, his head ringing with the “great names” he has heard: “To think that the man who had met those people was sleeping under the same roof! There, where Owad had been, was surely where life was to be found.”) Crowded with humor and sadness, poignancy and absurdity, this deeply human—and deeply moving—novel feels as alive as wild grass sprouting in the tropical sun; yet it is also, miraculously, a masterpiece of control, with the structural balance and purity of a classical symphony.

Alas, Naipaul has never quite equaled the accomplishment of A House for Mr. Biswas. He followed it with Mr. Stone and the Knights Companion (1963), a surprisingly English light novel about an unadventurous London businessman whose life takes a surprising and hopeful new turn at age sixty-two.5 This charming, entirely conventional work might have been written by any one of a number of English writers; the darker, more unusual The Mimic Men (1967)—about a very different man in a very different London—could only have been written by Naipaul.6 The narrator is Ralph Singh, born Ranjit Kripalsingh, once a powerful leader on Isabella (read Trinidad) but now, at forty, a has-been who leads a twilight existence in London, kept company by the memories and reflections that he relates to us dryly and undramatically. (One can almost imagine him as Ganesh, post-Mystic Masseur.) There is much of value in this book. The prose is of a rare stateliness and intelligence, studded with clever, sometimes almost epigrammatic mots. (Singh on politicians and reporters: “The losers come and go, the recorders go on.”) The sophisticated tone—in particular, Singh’s way of talking about power and women—brings to mind the finest of all Graham Greene’s novels, The End of the Affair. And Singh’s preoccupation with his own “placelessness,” his question-mark identity as a “mimic man”—an imitation Englishman—makes for some genuinely thought-provoking observations about identity (and for echoes, too, of Biswas: “There, in Liège in a traffic jam, on the snow slopes of the Laurentians, was the true, pure world”).

It is plain that Naipaul (for whom Singh is obviously, to a large extent, a spokesman) is haunted by the question: What does a gifted, ambitious person from a place like Trinidad do with his life? What are the options, and how ethical, satisfactory, lasting, and culturally valuable are they? Is such a person fated to end his life in exile, a lonely émigré? Yet the interminable self-contemplation, articulate and sagacious though it is, proves to be a bit too much of a good thing, and this gray, humorless, dispassionate novel eventually sinks under the weight of it all.

A considerably more captivating work is In a Free State, a nearly perfect novella that was published in 1971 with two fine stories and an autobiographical prologue and epilogue.7 If Biswas makes one feel as if one knows Trinidad, In A Free State makes one feel as if one has more than a passing acquaintance with sub-Saharan Africa. The situation presented in the novella is simple: Bobby, a homosexual Englishman who works for the Foreign Office, and Linda, the wife of one of his colleagues, are driving across the African country where they have both lived for several years and which, having won its independence, is now in the grip of civil war. Bobby loves the country; Linda despises it. Naipaul does a splendid job of realizing these two sophisticated and opinionated individuals, whose conversation—a veritable anthology of British truisms about Africa that is charged, by turns, with wistfulness, bitterness, anger, and regret (and, increasingly, fear)—shifts convincingly between moments of shared feeling and of harsh discord. Neither of the two characters—who are among Naipaul’s most vibrant—comes across as a stereotype or an authorial mouthpiece; they are not meant to represent good and evil, or right and wrong. They are simply two reasonably decent and intelligent people, civilized, imperfect, reacting in their different (and plausible) ways to a highly challenging set of circumstances in which they are morally implicated, purely by virtue of their identity as representatives of a former colonial power. As the story progresses, the tension between them—and between them and the natives they encounter along the way—builds convincingly, filling the reader with a sense of dread, of some impending doom that seems at once personal and general. The result is a relatively short work that packs a substantial wallop, evoking a world in which there are no simple answers, either in individual lives or in the lives of nations and continents. In brilliantly restrained and economical prose, Naipaul impresses upon the reader the savagery that lurks in the human soul and the precariousness—and preciousness—of the civilization that protects some of us from the full expression of that savagery.

In a Free State signaled a shift for Naipaul. It was followed by books that, leaving behind the sweetness and humor of The Mystic Masseur and the rich human sensitivity of A House for Mr. Biswas, looked upon the former European colonial world with a colder and harsher eye. Guerrillas (1975),8 which focuses on a radical black Caribbean leader named Jimmy Ahmed, his lover Bryant, and his activist cronies Jane (a Canadian) and Roche (a South African), is based on events that took place in Trinidad in the early 1970s and that Naipaul recounted in an essay, “Michael X and the Black Power Killings in Trinidad.” The novel might well be described as Naipaul’s Waste Land—not only on account of its relentlessly bleak portrayal of the modern world, but also because it is chock full of literary allusions. Yet though it has a certain chilling power, the dramatis personae—with their mindless, arrogant devotion to modish radicalism—are so unsympathetic that Naipaul’s stark delineation of the human capacity for senseless violence and lust for mastery proves to be more impressive than truly affecting.

This cannot be said, however, of Naipaul’s next novel. With an expertly sustained tone and atmosphere that bring to mind Heart of Darkness, Camus’s The Plague, and Greene’s political novels, A Bend in the River (1979)9 offers Naipaul’s most sustained and terrifying vision of social chaos and tyranny. At its outset, the novel’s protagonist, Salim, a member of a Muslim merchant family that originated in India but has lived in an unnamed African country for generations, flees the brutal pandemonium of his coastal city for a town in the interior. But there is no escape; the entire country (to which the highly sympathetic Salim, who has no other home, both does and does not belong) is engulfed in irrational turmoil. Plagued by tribal warfare, autocratic and murderous government, and an inefficient and corruption-ridden economy, it is trapped on the bloody borderland between primitivism and civilization. Naipaul depicts this setting with absolute authority, writing about it as if he has lived in such a place all his life—writing about it, indeed, the way a doctor might describe a corpse he has dissected.

In the press release announcing Naipaul’s Nobel Prize, the Swedish Academy noted that Naipaul “began to experience the inadequacy of fiction while he was working on The Loss of El Dorado.”10 This book, published in 1970, is a comprehensive history of Trinidad’s colonial era, the particulars of which were so terrible that Naipaul felt compelled to present them straightforwardly and (as the Swedish Academy put it) to “abstain from mere fictionalisation.” Within a few years Naipaul was stating that he could “no longer understand why it is important to write or read invented stories”—a staggering confession for any novelist, let alone the author of A House for Mr. Biswas. Not surprisingly, the effects of this new indifference to imaginative fiction could be observed in his writing. The Enigma of Arrival (1987), which is labeled a novel, consists of the melancholy musings of an author who lives in Naipaul’s own rural Wiltshire and who in his background and views is indistinguishable from Naipaul.11 This author lives primarily in his mind and his work, secondarily on a landscape (which is described in monotonous detail), and only thirdly among people, the handful of farm laborers and managers with whom he happens to come into regular, if superficial, contact and who, over the course of the book, die off one by one. In this staggeringly inert book, which is almost entirely lacking in action or conflict, the narrator’s thoughts—much as in The Mimic Men—circle around the question of what it means to be a sometime colonial subject now living in the former (and now decaying) imperial metropole. Naipaul gives us much to chew on here but, alas, little to savor.

The same criticism might be leveled at A Way in the World (1994),12 which is also identified as a novel, and which draws on much of the same material as The Loss of El Dorado. The book’s narrator (again a Naipaul stand-in) begins by telling us a story about his Trinidad boyhood, then devotes a chapter apiece to accounts of (among others) a forgotten English travel writer of the 1930s, Sir Walter Raleigh, and Francisco Miranda, a nineteenth-century Venezuelan revolutionary. The conceit is that these are people he has considered writing books about; the chapters’ common setting is Trinidad, and colonialism—with its characteristic injustices, indignities, and abominations—is the overarching issue. For the most part, these stories are not dramatized, merely related; one gathers that truth is being mixed with fiction, though it is never entirely clear what’s invented and what isn’t. There are passages in this book that are quite interesting, and the chapters, with their varied glimpses of colonialism, do have a certain cumulative effectiveness; yet in the end, the parts of this uneven book fail to add up to anything that might be reasonably considered a novel.

And what of Naipaul’s most recent novel, Half a Life (2001)?13 Set in India, Europe, and Africa, this compact account of an Indian named Willie Chandran is in fact Naipaul’s first real novel in over two decades and is certainly tauter and more energetic than The Enigma of Arrival or A Way in the World; yet though Naipaul appears determined to recapture the charm, warmth, and mirthfulness of The Mystic Masseur and Biswas as well as to revisit the edgy territory of In a Free State and A Bend in the River (while leaving behind most of the edge), Half a Life falls short of all these works and ultimately seems only to confirm that, despite this apparent attempt to re-establish himself as an author of genuine novels, Naipaul’s heart is no longer in the art of fiction.

Even as he has ceased to produce major novels, however, Naipaul has continued to turn out valuable and important non-fiction. The first of his nonfiction books was The Middle Passage: The Caribbean Revisited (1962),14 a brief account of a journey in the West Indies, and most of the nonfiction books that have followed have also been travel chronicles, most of them about places with some connection to Naipaul’s own background. He has written three volumes—An Area of Darkness (1964), India: A Wounded Civilization (1977), and India: A Million Mutinies Now (1990)15—about the land he refers to as “the country from which my grandfather came, a country never physically described and therefore never real, a country out in the void beyond the dot of Trinidad”; and he has written two—Among the Believers: An Islamic Journey (1981)16 and Beyond Belief: Islamic Excursions among the Converted Peoples (1998)17—about Islam, a religion with which he grew up at close quarters. A Turn in the South (1989)18 records a trip around the American South, a region with which he has no personal affiliation (though he draws several insightful comparisons between it and his own West Indies), while The Overcrowded Barracoon (1972), The Return of Eva Perón (1980), and Finding the Center (1984) bring together articles and essays on a variety of topics and places.19 Naipaul’s newest book, a substantial and handsomely produced compendium entitled The Writer and the World, includes excerpts from several of these volumes.20

Naipaul’s travel books vary somewhat in form and style: the earlier ones tend to be more pithy and self-consciously artistic, while the later ones are expansive and reportorial. But they are all the work of a writer who observes and listens conscientiously, faithfully records the testimony of persons with a wide range of views, and states his conclusions without regard to whether they square with anyone’s ideology. He is a man not of noble sentiments but of hard truths. As Ian Buruma observed in 1991 (the year after Naipaul was knighted by the Queen of England), “What makes Naipaul one of the world’s most civilized writers is his refusal to be engaged by the People, and his insistence on listening to people, individuals, with their own language and their own stories.” Naipaul, Buruma notes, is “impatient with all abstractions”; and indeed what all of Naipaul’s travel books have in common is a fierce particularity.

Some critics, of course, have not shared Buruma’s admiration. Many have taken Naipaul to task for his blunt comments about Third World countries. He has received especially harsh criticism for what some readers have called his derogatory and hysterical view of Islam—though it can be (shall we say) instructive to revisit some of these critiques in the wake of September 11. Consider a review of Among the Believers: An Islamic Journey (1981), published in these very pages twenty years ago, in which Marvin Mudrick described Naipaul’s vision of Islam as “monotonously alarmist.” The book, Mudrick sneered, is “Grand Guignol with Dracula makeup and howls from the wind-machines in the wings as Islamic fanaticism threatens the very foundations of civilization: the sky is falling! the sky is falling!” Derisively, Mudrick asked: “Does he [Naipaul] expect the Bedouins led by Rudolph Valentino to come sweeping like the simoom out of the desert descending on Bloomingdale’s with fire and sword and no-limit credit cards?” (In quoting these lines, I don’t mean to fault Mudrick for failing to share Naipaul’s foresight. I merely wish to point out that even Mudrick, a gutsy, independent-minded critic who wasn’t afraid to challenge conventional wisdom, was capable of slamming Naipaul for his take on political Islam.)

In any event, to turn from the critics’ charges of malice and hysteria to the travel books themselves is to be struck—most of the time, anyway—by Naipaul’s tentativeness and modesty. Though at times, to be sure, he can seem to be looking at people and places from a rather haughty, sardonic distance, what is most conspicuous in these volumes is not vitriol but engagement. His curiosity about cultural divergences within countries and regions, for example, is admirable. “In Trinidad,” he observes in The Middle Passage, “there is no memory of slavery; in British Guiana it is hard to forget it. The very word ‘Negro,’ because of its association with slavery, is resented by many black Guianese; the preferred word is ‘African,’ which will cause deep offense in Trinidad.” Naipaul’s alertness to such nuances is on frequent display in his travel books and is, I would suggest, the very definition of respect. I would add that this attentiveness to differences in manners, values, habits, dialects, and Weltanschauung—and to the fundamental human urges they express—accomplishes something quite special: at certain moments, mainly in the early books, one can feel that one is brushing against the very essence of the human animal; it is almost as if an observer from another planet, or a member of some higher form of life, were reporting on our species, noting human beings’ primal preoccupations with sex, money, their stomachs, their bowels, their appearance and dress, not to mention the depressingly predictable prejudices by which they seek to shore up their identities. One fact, in any event, emerges clearly from a reading of these books: that Naipaul visits foreign places not because he wishes to condemn, but because he wishes to understand—to understand individual cultures, to understand homo sapiens generally, and, most intimately of all, to understand himself. This is, after all, a man who in his Nobel acceptance speech described himself as “the sum of my books”—by which, he explained, he meant that his books, both fiction and nonfiction, had grown out of a need to comprehend his own background, to probe and plumb the “areas of darkness around me,” the mysterious contexts that molded his identity.

Not that all is darkness in Naipaul’s nonfiction. In The Middle Passage especially, he exhibits a Maughamesque eye for the human comedy. On the ship from England to Trinidad, Naipaul meets “a fat brown-skinned Grenadian of thirty-three.”

He said he had ten children in Grenada, in various parishes and by various women. He had gone to England to get away from them all, but then had begun to feel that he should go back and face his responsibilities. He thought he might even get married. He hadn’t yet decided who to, but it probably would be the mother of his last child. He loved this child; he didn’t care for the others. I asked why, then, he had so many. Didn’t they have contraceptives in Grenada? He said with some indignation that he was a Roman Catholic; and for the rest of the journey never spoke to me.

Such comic incidents, however, become rarer in the later travel books, which are possessed—indeed propelled—by an intense awareness of man’s inhumanity to man, whether it is manifested as Western imperialism or Islamist tyranny or the despotism of some sub-Saharan president-for-life. Naipaul tends to visit places where there are multitudes of destitute and downtrodden people, and in his view such people’s lack of attractive life options is something to lament; the way in which their societies shackle their minds, their governments break their spirits, and their cultures stifle their growth as individuals can provoke his fury. In India, for example, while recognizing that the extended family—the clan—“gave protection and identity, and saved people from the wild,” he also feels compelled to point out that it “was itself a little state, and it could be a hard place, full of politics, full of hatreds and changing alliances and moral denunciations. It was the kind of family life I had known for much of my childhood: an early introduction to the ways of the world, and to the nature of cruelty. It had given me . . . a taste for the other kind of life, the solitary or less crowded life, where one had space around oneself.” Similarly, in the Moslem countries, he is irked that Islamic fundamentalism “allows to only one people—the Arabs, the original people of the Prophet—a past, and sacred places, pilgrimages, and earth reverences. . . . Converted peoples have to strip themselves of their past; of converted peoples nothing is required but the purest faith (if such a thing can be arrived at), Islam, submission. It is the most uncompromising kind of imperialism.” Plainly, the personal angle is vital here: if Naipaul is preoccupied with Islam’s eradication of the history of conquered peoples, it surely owes something to his intense awareness of having come to English culture as an imperial subject. (Can it be that Naipaul, in A Turn in the South, treats Protestant fundamentalism far more gently than he treats Islamic fundamentalism in his books on Islam because the religion of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson simply doesn’t have the personal resonance for him that Islam does?)

At the center of Naipaul’s oeuvre lies a profound irony. It was Western colonialism that provided him with his first experiences of indignity and exploitation, and planted in him a lifelong feeling of dislocation and an ire that continues to burn in his soul. Yet he is at the same time clear-sighted enough to recognize that in today’s world, the most reprehensible injustices are perpetrated by powers aligned against the West, and that the West is now in fact the part of the world in which human rights are most thoroughly protected, human talents most consistently rewarded, human life most sincerely valued, and human potential most fully realized. It is in the West, in short, that men and women are most likely to enjoy the greatest gift of all, the chance really to live—and, in his case, the ability to write whatever he wants. Consequently Naipaul cherishes Western civilization and refuses to condescend to Third World peoples by using dishonest euphemisms to describe what he calls their “half-made” societies. He cares enough for them to admit that they deserve better—and what they deserve is Western civilization, which Naipaul, in a 1990 lecture, identified as “the universal civilization” (an appropriate term, because the civilization’s intellectual and cultural legacy is, or should be, the property of all).21

The universal civilization, Naipaul states in his lecture, “has been a long time in the making. It wasn’t always universal; it wasn’t always as attractive as it is today. The expansion of Europe gave it for at least three centuries a racial taint, which still causes pain. In Trinidad, I grew up in the last days of that kind of racialism. And that, perhaps, has given me a greater appreciation of the immense changes that have taken place since the end of the war, the extraordinary attempt of this civilization to accommodate the rest of the world, and all the currents of that world’s thought.” Naipaul goes on to praise Western values, in particular

the beauty of the idea of the pursuit of happiness. Familiar words, easy to take for granted; easy to misconstrue. This idea of the pursuit of happiness is at the heart of the attractiveness of the civilization to so many outside it or on its periphery. I find it marvelous to contemplate to what an extent, after two centuries, and after the terrible history of the earlier part of this century, the idea has come to a kind of fruition. It is an elastic idea; it fits all men. It implies a certain kind of society, a certain kind of awakened spirit. I don’t imagine my father’s parents would have been able to understand the idea. So much is contained in it: the idea of the individual, responsibility, choice, the life of the intellect, the idea of vocation and perfectibility and achievement. It is an immense human idea. It cannot be reduced to a fixed system. It cannot generate fanaticism. But it is known to exist; and because of that, other more rigid systems in the end blow away.

Because he goes around saying such things, there was widespread surprise when Naipaul was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2001. To many observers, the prize seemed out of character for the Swedish Academy, which in recent years has tended to favor writers—among them Dario Fo (1997), José Saramago (1998), and Günter Grass (1999)—who take a very different view of Western civilization.


Certainly Naipaul was the odd man out on that Stockholm stage last December—an event that surely gave many viewers a sense of what it is that makes him, now more than ever, such a vitally important cultural figure. Inevitably, September 11 came up. Gordimer identified terrorism’s root cause as poverty; Grass concurred, portraying 9/11 as a case of the victimized justifiably striking back at the powerful. As for the victims of 9/11, Grass charged that Americans value “white lives” more than non-white lives. (One gathered that he had never seen photographs of the World Trade Center dead.) Naipaul responded with admirable temperateness. We are, he said softly, engaged in a struggle between freedom and tyranny. Gesturing with his arms to indicate himself, his interlocutors, and the room they were in—which, with its high wall of crowded bookshelves, was a veritable visual representation of the idea of the civilized life, of higher learning, and of literary achievement—Naipaul said: “You cannot imagine this kind of conversation taking place in . . .” And he listed several Islamic countries. When Gordimer conceded that “perhaps” Osama bin Ladin’s terrorism “is not a good way to redress the balance between the haves and have-nots” (which was the closest either she or Grass came to condemning acts of terror), Naipaul replied by stressing how urgent it was for writers “to know the world more intimately” instead of employing “blanket characterizations.” He dismissed as “utterly romantic” the belief that the destruction of the World Trade Center was an action taken on behalf of the world’s economically deprived. He rejected Grass’s claim that the U.S. was responsible for (among much else) Rwandan genocide. And he stated unequivocally that the terrorism of 9/11 had been an “assault on civilization.”

Indeed. But how cheering it is that the year that saw that terrible assault on civilization also saw the presentation of a Nobel Prize in Literature to someone whose entire body of work might justifiably be described as a defense of civilization. And not a facile defense, either, but an ardent and eloquent defense by a writer who—having experienced that civilization at its height and at its depths, and having also seen a myriad of gruesome alternatives up close—knows whereof he speaks.


1,THE MYSTIC MASSEUR; 2, The Suffrage of Elvira (London, 1958) and Miguel Street (London, 1959); 3, A HOUSE FOR MR. BISWAS, 4, BETWEEN FATHER AND SON: Family Letters, 5, Mr. Stone and the Knights Companion (Harmondsworth, 1982); 6, THE MIMIC MEN; Also published in 1967 was Naipaul's short-story collection, A Flag on the Island; 7, IN A FREE STATE; 8, GUERRILLAS; 9, A BEND IN THE RIVER; 10, The Loss of El Dorado (New York, 1970); 11, THE ENIGMA OF ARRIVAL; 12, A WAY IN THE WORLD; 13, HALF A LIFE;14,THE MIDDLE PASSAGE: The Caribbean Revisited; 15, An Area of Darkness (London, 1987), India: A Wounded Civilization (London, 1977), and India: A Million Mutinies Now (London, 1990); 16, AMONG THE BELIEVERS: An Islamic Journey; 17, BEYOND BELIEF: Islamic Excursions among the Converted Peoples; 18, TURN IN THE SOUTH; 19,The Overcrowded Barracoon (Harmondsworth, 1981), The Return of Eva Perón: With the Killings in Trinidad (Harmondsworth, 1983), and Finding the Center (Harmondsworth, 1985); 20, THE WRITER AND THE WORLD: Essays; 21, Naipaul's lecture, "The Universal Civilization," appears as a "postscript" in his collection The Writer and the World. Though dated 1992 in the book, the lecture was first given at the Manhattan Institute in New York in 1990.

[Editor’s Note: All credits to the author, Bruce Bawer, and the Hudson Review, where this article first appeared (Autumn 2002). Mr. Bawer is the author of Stealing Jesus: How Fundamentalist Betrays Christianity.]

August 2002
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