In 1958, following the writing of his first three books, the Trinidadian-Indian novelist V. S. Naipaul commented regretfully upon the "regional barrier" responsible for the English reading public's "indifference" to his works. "It is an odd, suspicious situation," he observed, "an Indian writer writing in English for an English audience about non-English characters who talk their own sort of English. . . . The only way out is to cease being a regional writer." In 1987, as if in belated fulfillment of Naipaul's wish to transcend his literary marginality, his autobiographical novel The Enigma of Arrival reached the top of the English best-seller list. In the same year Naipaul was introduced on British television as "one of our most distinguished novelists." And now the American publishing company Continuum (Ungar) offers Richard Kelly's V. S. Naipaul as part of its Literature and Life: British Writers Series, which includes studies of such authors within the British mainstream as Virginia Woolf, E. M. Forster, Aldous Huxley, Evelyn Waugh, and Anthony Burgess.
In his introductory study of Naipaul, however, Kelly neglects to address the important ideological question of what constitutes "Britishness" in postcolonial times. Seeking artistic freedom and a larger, Occidental audience, authors from the ex-colonies have flocked to London in recent decades; England itself, home to more than two million immigrants in the 1980s, today demonstrates a cultural and literary diversity unparalleled in its history. Is the demarcation between British and non-British in the literary sphere determined by a writer's length of residence in England? By his/her declared nationality? Political fealty? Empathy with English life? Textual subject matter? Or is it decided by literary recognition as measured by British awards and book sale figures?
Not only does Kelly disregard the political significance of using the designation "British" to describe Naipaul, but he also largely ignores the contextual significance of the Caribbean and Indian literary and historical traditions in shaping Naipaul's works. Landeg White, John Thieme, and Selwyn Cudjoe among others have elucidated the influence upon Naipaul's themes and craft of the works of the West Indians C. L. R. James, Edgar Mittelholzer, Roger Mais, Seepersad Naipaul, and Samuel Selvon on the one hand and of the Indian literary-philosophical tradition as embodied in the Bhagvad Gita, Upanishads, Ramayana, and Mahabharata on the other. Kelly, in contrast, likens Naipaul's texts to those [End Page 870] of Dickens and Arnold, T. S. Eliot and Yeats, Conrad and Greene. By locating Naipaul's work exclusively within the Western tradition, Kelly both suggests his own lack of familiarity with non-Western literatures and reflects the narrow interpretation of the term "British Literature" by most Occidental critics.
In his Western, "universalist," chiefly ahistorical reading of Naipaul's works, Kelly also overlooks the ideological debate in Naipaul criticism between First World critics who regard him as a remarkable diagnostician of our age and Third World critics who attack what they construe as his imperialist politics and latent racism. Kelly's omission of the Caribbean-Indian determinants of Naipaul's oeuvre as well as his neglect of the politics of reading Naipaul may make his book more accessible to American readers, but it betrays a continuing cultural and literary insularity among all but the most progressive Occidental scholars.
Consistent with Continuum's apparent aims for its Literature and Life Series—the volume lacks an editorial preface and introductory remarks by the author—Kelly's V. S. Naipaul seeks not to present a polemical, thought-provoking analysis for the Naipaul scholar but to introduce Naipaul's work to an uninitiated Western audience. And in the latter aim it does succeed, albeit with a Western bias. Following a prefatory chronology of Naipaul's life and writings, the text provides a biographical chapter that links Naipaul's history with his thematic concerns in his texts. The remainder of Kelly's book presents a chronological reading of all of Naipaul's novels, drawing upon the travel narratives and essays only as they comment upon the fiction. Instead of foregrounding a controlling theoretical-critical method in his...