On the Margins

V.S. Naipaul is one of the most interesting and important living writers in English. His writing, full of implications for contemporary readers, is a rich vein for scholarship. ON THE MARGINS is one more book-length study, mostly competent and sometimes very stimulating. Rob Nixon (1992) and Selwyn R. Cudjoe (1988) offer more trenchant discussions, though both attack Naipaul’s weak points with unseemly enthusiasm. Peter Hughes (1988) offers a thoughtful and well-written appreciation.

Timothy Weiss of the University of Maine deserves respect for having chosen such a difficult subject for what seems to be his first book. At its worst (in the early chapters), ON THE MARGINS is cloyingly jargon-laden, full of neologisms such as “double-voicedness” and “(con)fusion”; the word “multicultural” appears far too often. Its mostly chronological arrangement betrays a shortage of imagination, and Weiss’s definition of “exile” is forced and overwrought. (Naipaul proudly claims no label but “writer”; Nixon observes trenchantly that critics, “by accepting the nation as the unit of identification...have overlooked—sometimes willfully—the possibility that his fundamental affiliations might be to...the London-New York metropolitan axis around which literary culture revolves in the English-speaking world.”)

Weiss’s main virtue is his use of non literary sources to give socioeconomic perspective on the countries Naipaul has written about. He writes: “When Naipaul wrote [“The Overcrowded Barracoon”], Mauritius had to export its people to employ them; today, it imports labor. Differences such as these between yesterday and today and between Naipaul’s and others’ evaluations of a country and people throw light on the literary quality of his essays, with their selectivity, repetition, and poetic sense of a world running down.” and Weiss’s enthusiasm for his subject is refreshing; he is neither an uncritical admirer nor a Naipaul-basher.

Weiss’s discussion of Naipaul’s 1987 masterpiece THE ENIGMA OF ARRIVAL could be stronger, although his long paragraph on pp. 211-212 is valuable. His attention to Naipaul’s important latest period, especially INDIA: A MILLION MUTINIES NOW (1990), is perfunctory. And notably absent is mention of the crucial essay “Our Universal Civilization” (NEW YORK REVIEW OF BOOKS, January 31, 1991).

“An autobiography can distort; facts can be realigned. But fiction never lies: it reveals the writer totally,” Naipaul has written. Naipaul’s fiction and nonfiction exhibit a “twinned relation...that in THE ENIGMA OF ARRIVAL becomes almost Siamese,” writes Hughes. More discussion is needed of Naipaul as an autobiographer.