Research in African Literatures 33.4 (2002) 228-229
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The Making of a Writer
Naipaul's Truth: The Making of a Writer, by Lilian Feder. Oxford: Rowman and Littlefield, 2001. 269 pp. ISBN 0-7425-0808-0 cloth.
V. S. Naipaul has been so consistently prolific, that any studies of his work are all almost immediately followed by yet another publication of his. In the case of Lilian Feder's Naipaul's Truth, it is the release of Naipaul's first novel in seven years, Half a Life, that has followed. Again on cue, this year's award of the Nobel Prize for Literature to Naipaul likewise punctuates this latest gesture of codification. This incidental pattern accompanies another, namely, the well-established fault lines of Naipaul criticism, between those who celebrate and endorse his insights, and those who do not. Feder's careful, thoughtful, but sometimes cross book belongs resoundingly with the former group, and within the lexicon of literary analyses rests unapologetically as an exercise of "defence" and "appreciation."
Accordingly, the body of the study seeks to establish the terms of the title. Feder identifies Naipaul's "truth" as the resoluteness of the intensely personal investment Naipaul has repeatedly drawn upon to construct the personae of his travel narratives and the autobiographical cast of much of his fiction. This "truth," furthermore, gains much of its resiliency from the accumulative effect of Naipaul's writerly documentation of his self-discoveries, and the "self-knowledge" that ensues, "book by book," (Finding the Centre, London : Andre Deutsch, 1984, p. 34) culminating in a kind of beacon of integrity Feder so admires. Few, if any, of Naipaul's readers would disagree. Rather, disagreements arise over the value of this "truth," and whether it correctly establishes reciprocity with its objects of scrutiny, or whether it employs the necessary categories of analyses, and so on. Thus, as long as Naipaul foregrounds himself as subject, his truth, and its articulation in his work, remains on record as an extraordinary testament to one species of mid-twentieth-century postcoloniality. When it is also taken to represent the "truth" of, say, politicized Islam, or "Africa," then many do and will continue to dismiss his findings as unhelpful.
Feder organizes her study around clusters of genre and theme. This allows her to examine Naipaul's treatments of place or theme, as pieces over time, so that his reconsiderations, re-writings, and adjustments between his first and subsequent encounters stand as more complete, though not necessarily more comprehensive. The second chapter, "Autobiography," ranges over a selection of Naipaul's works regarding Trinidad, India, the Islamic world, and the US South as a way to trace his pursuit of ancestral as well as historical affiliations. The third chapter, "Travel Narratives, History, and Journalism," gathers together other works on the Caribbean, Africa, India, and Argentina to illustrate further the development of Naipaul's personalized measure of historical materials (exercises in historiography; identification and exposure of political myths; examining the nationalism/religion nexus), and makes the case for an historicized engagement against charges to the contrary. In responding to many of Naipaul's critics (Rob Nixon comes in for some heavy admonishment, as do I, but cast as male), Feder suggests that some current events [End Page 228] bear out Naipaul's versions rather than not. Unfortunately, Feder's updates, such as that regarding Zaire/Congo, only reiterate the kinds of pessimistic and empiricist/positivist observations Naipaul himself engages in, rather than acknowledging the terrifying and resilient linkage between the commercial and political interests newly at play in a still international and neocolonial rather than "African" theater of conflict.
The penultimate and final chapters focus on Naipaul's fiction. Feder's detailed reading of the early novels and stories, as "Comic and Tragic Realism," are exemplary; her treatment of the middle phase, in two sections, not unsurprisingly serve as substantiation for her thesis about Naipaul's (historical) "truth." The last section, aptly named "The Author in History," and the "Afterword" help conclude the same thesis with their...