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Reeding Lessons: the Henry Reed research blog

18.12.2017


Reed Reviews V.S. Naipaul

I'm thinking of adding a feature to the blog: "Reed Reviews." From time to time I'll reproduce a book review written by Henry Reed. I've collected a forest of Reed's criticism, and most of it is just sitting in my living room, of little use to anyone. And, since I've been lamenting of my meager bookshelf over on LibraryThing, I'll start adding those books which Reed reviewed to their own set.

I was surprised to find this review of V.S. Naipaul's Area of Darkness this past week. First of all, it's later than most of Reed's critical work, from 1964. Secondly, it's from The Spectator; the only piece which Reed wrote for them, as far as I know. I turned it up in a bibliography of Naipaul's work.

Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul (1932- ) is a native Trinidadian who has spent most of his life living in England. During the 1960s, he began visiting his ancestral country of India, and the resulting travelogue, An Area of Darkness, is considered a stark and unflinching look at the social problems afflicting India at that time. Here is Henry Reed's review of Naipaul's book, "Passage to India" Spectator, 2 October 1964, 452-53 (.pdf). V.S. Naipaul was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2001.

Book cover

Passage to India
An Area of Darkness. By V.S. Naipaul. (Deutsch, 25s.)

Mr. Naipaul does not mention the most interesting thing about his first, and possibly last, visit to India. It may, indeed, easily escape attention. I refer to the fact that his last novel, Mr. Stone and the Knights Companion, is dated 'Srinagar, 1962.' From this one gathers that in the middle of a sojourn in the country of his remoter origins, obsessed by a desolation and despair that will not everywhere command sympathy (though my own sympathy with Mr. Naipaul is, for what it is worth, complete), the author managed to clear for himself a small area in the all-pervading mess and confusion, and to impose thereon a precarious stability in which he could work. This he obtained by shouting, threats, and a bullying insistence that promises must be fulfilled. He had chosen to stay and work in a ramshackle houseboat-hotel on the shore of a Kashmir lake. Here, in exotic surroundings, wildly insecure in every personal contact, Mr. Naipaul seems to have written his story of the over-ordered, logical life of Mr. Stone, a middle-class Englishman, whose own order and certainty are beginning to disintegrate before the onset of age. There is something almost sublime in the thought of a writer, surrounded by one form of madness, sitting down and describing another: perhaps the aim, conscious or unconscious, was to avoid yet a third, himself.

This long middle section in Mr. Naipaul's book is beautifully done: the personnel at the hotel have much of the comic vividness and completeness of the characters in The Mystic Masseur. But there is no farcical exaggeration, and the passage is not detachable from the rest of the book. Almost certainly it is these pages, together with the grimly fantastic prelude at the customs house with which the book opens, that Mr. Naipaul's regular readers will find most to their liking. He is a genuine artist: he has acquired a surreptitious love for his subject before he can laugh at it.

Alas, he found very little to love in India, and therefore little to be comic about; and he is, I conjecture, too honest a man and too good an artist to try and manipulate what he hated into anything more than plain statement. The power of his book as a whole lies in something that is usually absent from accounts of India: an avoidance of rhetoric. Mr. Naipaul records, candidly and ruthlessly, what he hated there, and what it made him hate in himself—his reactions of near-hysteria, disgust and panic; and above all, perhaps, his guilt at an incapacity for charity, a guilt which his recognition of a genuine Indian sweetness of disposition and behavior could only agonisingly redouble.

How much he was prepared for such reactions it is impossible to say. In the event, he found India horrible in its present state; and he could see no apparent hope for its future. To him the whole place was desperate, flaccid, incoherent, muddled, discontinuous, and physically sickening. His pictures of India are too many and too complex for brief recapitulation; but it would be an affectation to avoid mentioning that the book reverts again and again to a fact he is bluntly explicit about: the bland Indian habit of public defecation. This simple fundamental Scheissmotiv is always booming up from Mr. Naipaul's orchestra. He seems to see it (and I recall similar feelings, more fastidiously expressed, in Forster's preface to Anand's Untouchable) as the basis of Indian life. But he is convinced that its importance and danger and nastiness cannot be impressed on a country whose main character-trait is a capacity for manic denial.

Mr. Naipaul's conclusion (a depressing comment, not an invitation) is that 'India, it seems, will never cease to require the arbitration of a conqueror.' This remark, in itself no more than a bitter parenthesis, will doubtless give great offense. It will doubtless be construed as an approval of whatever ideas China or Russia may entertain about India's future. It is, of course, nothing of the kind: any more than it implies approval of the British Raj, whose sole residual effect, according to Mr. Naipaul, is to have posthumously created, among wealthy business-class Indians, a grotesque charade-like life where everyone plays at being super-English, the men calling each other Andy and Bunny, the women anxiously clutching their copies of the Daily Mirror and Woman's Own.

Mr. Naipaul will be attacked for the things he says. He will no doubt be trounced, vindicated, and trounced again. Perhaps he will even be proved factually wrong. That would be good, and would matter. But at least he will have contributed with passion and sincerity to an important and sometime somnolent debate. That, too, matters. And to whom it may concern, this book also exposes that deep, reasonable, non-psychotic sadness from which comedy must find its way up and out: in this book we can glimpse a notable artist making (or having made for him) that harrowing choice between the sorry thing that can just be laughed at and those that can only be wept at.
henry reed
You can read more of Henry Reed's book reviews by following the "Reviews" tag, below.

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1513. Hodge, Alan. "Thunder on the Right." Tribune (London), 14 June 1946, 15.
Hodge finds 'dry charm as well as quiet wit' in "Judging Distances," but overall feels Reed is 'diffuse and not sufficiently accomplished.'



1st lesson:

Reed, Henry (1914-1986). Born: Birmingham, England, 22 February 1914; died: London, 8 December 1986.

Education: MA, University of Birmingham, 1936. Served: RAOC, 1941-42; Foreign Office, Bletchley Park, 1942-1945. Freelance writer: BBC Features Department, 1945-1980.

Author of: A Map of Verona: Poems (1946)
The Novel Since 1939 (1946)
Moby Dick: A Play for Radio from Herman Melville's Novel (1947)
Lessons of the War (1970)
Hilda Tablet and Others: Four Pieces for Radio (1971)
The Streets of Pompeii and Other Plays for Radio (1971)
Collected Poems (1991, 2007)
The Auction Sale (2006)


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