Southern Virtues

Frank Kermode

  • A Turn in the South by V.S. Naipaul
    Viking, 307 pp, £14.95, April 1989, ISBN 0 670 82415 1
  • Allen Tate: A Recollection by Walter Sullivan
    Louisiana State, 117 pp, $16.95, November 1988, ISBN 0 8071 1481 2
  • Self-Consciousness by John Updike
    Deutsch, 245 pp, £12.95, May 1989, ISBN 0 233 98390 2

Naipaul’s epigraph – ‘There is a history in all men’s lives/Figuring the natures of the times deceased’ – warns us that on these journeys through the South of the United States he will always carry with him his own origins in Trinidad; properly studied, those beginnings, as Shakespeare suggests in the following lines, may foretell the hatch and brood of time. The book is dedicated to the memory of his father.

It is Naipaul’s way to offer an objective account of what, as a traveller, he sees and hears, yet he is always, quite deliberately but with a sort of modest self-assertiveness, a principal part of what we see and hear, like the donor in a painting, and visibly bearing his burden of a past. The effect is hard to describe; this is writing of a peculiar tonal distinction. There are few rhetorical flourishes; the reporting is quiet; but one has the feeling, even when the setting is otherwise described, that the interviews are taking place in a large room, where small figures converse in an acoustic engineered by the interviewer. This effect is not egotistical; it is on the vocation of writing rather than on his own status as writer that Naipaul has habitually insisted. The interests of the interviewer are extensive, and include, by way of an informed understanding of the plight of the Third World, a view of the plight of the world. But mostly he lets others do the talking, with only a few prompts and exclamations.

Wondering at the size and amenity of houses inhabited by some blacks, he remarks that ‘the houses I was taken to were bigger than the houses many people in Trinidad or England might have lived in. But still, in the past there was that point where darkness fell, the historical darkness, even here, which was home.’ The shadow of slavery falls not once but repeatedly in the life of post-colonial, or perhaps in the lives of all, communities. The black people of the American South lost something of their sense of home by their mid-19th-century emancipation, and something more by the newly-acquired freedoms of the Luther King era. What they lost was not religion, for both they and the white community have plenty of that, mainly fundamentalist (Naipaul is exceptionally good on its cultural importance), but a culture of which religion was a great part but only a part. Desegregation was good, but already the historical darkness has fallen on the spirit that animated it. Civil rights protests are still necessary, and they occur, but they are now formalised, like advertising stunts or tourist attractions, events that repeat the great symbolic marches of history but without standing for much beyond the events they themselves are.

Having written his first travel book, thirty years ago, about the former slave colonies of the Caribbean, Naipaul now writes his last – for so he describes it – about the old slave states of the American South-East. But the Caribbean states, when the colonialists moved out, were left to their own resources, self-governing and largely black; the Afro-American was in a quite different position, relieved of certain disabilities but still inescapably an underclass in a white country, needing to make the adaptations necessary to minorities, and even when well-off lacking the measure of wealth that gives power (‘we thought that once we had the same rights all our problems were over. What happened was that we retained 80 per cent of the historical problem we had, and that now we also had to deal with all of those things associated with being white’).

Neither situation, Caribbean or American, is enviable, but in some ways it seems the American blacks have the worse deal. For instance, individual educational advancement can be impeded by the envy of one’s peers: people shouldn’t get above themselves. Blacks like heroes but are oppressed by demons, by continuing white indifference or contempt, which infects them so that they have the same feelings, or lack of feeling, about themselves, even if they are successful and respected Atlanta politicians.[*] As a black journalist told Naipaul in that city, ‘white people in the United States don’t have leaders; only black people have leaders.’ The need for heroes – politicians, baseball-players – may be a sign of weakness. On the other hand, an upper-class white woman – member of ‘a very specialised herd’ – explains that white Southerners also have their specialised insecurities; she laments the gifted uneducated women of her generation, now hard drinkers or even insane. Down on their luck, white panhandlers are ignored on the street by respectable citizens who might well give something to a black beggar. So it seems there are social and racial insecurities on all sides of the new old South: unless, of course, one has been ‘humbled by God’ and so made safe from humiliations inflicted by men. The Caribbean, though also indelibly marked by the inherited disease of slavery, looks almost fortunate by contrast.

This may sound as if Naipaul was wholly involved in generalised comparisons, but it isn’t so. Although he speaks only of a notebook and never of a tape-recorder, the reporting of speech is very full, and marked by that skill in the registration of regional oddities he has always commanded. And the significant visual details are also there when needed. A veteran demonstrator appears in court with a toothbrush in his top pocket, ready for jail. A lawyer who consents to be interviewed, presumably for nothing, has on his wall a framed saying of Lincoln’s: ‘A lawyer’s time and advice are part of his stock in trade.’ It may be relevant to describe in some detail the appearance of an informant: ‘He was black and stocky; in his short-sleeved yellow shirt he looked very casual in the lounge of the Ritz, where that morning they were making a video about the hotel, with a male model, and they were shifting very bright lights about. This was the background to our talk of religion and the vanity of the world.’ In Charleston the horses that draw the tourist carriages wear ‘diapers’ to catch the droppings. Sometimes the details come from Confederate war memorials, or from books: as late as 1936 a writer could still claim that the plantation State was a recreation in America of Athenian democracy. And even now, as many instances prove, the notion of the old South as ‘a dream of purity’ lingers on, despite its commericalisation, in an age where blacks are allowed to drive cars and even to try on clothes in shops. A young black in a detention centre takes the writer’s hand: ‘Your hands soft. Your hands soft like cotton.’

A brilliant chapter on Booker T. Washington’s black university at Tuskegee points to some serious educational difficulties arising from desegregation. Black teachers and students are in demand at richer white schools, and the whole ethos of the place – self-respect, good posture etc – is obsolescent. The grand enterprise now exists only as if ‘in a melancholy time-warp’. Mostly, though, Naipaul, sometimes frustrated, and usually with a good deal of effort, seeks out not institutional but individual informants, sometimes driving through torrents of rain, or suffering asthma from the humid heat, to talk to them. The target might be a white lady or a black preacher or a student of Mississippi rednecks, whose dress and speech habits are here fastidiously registered. Or it might be somebody who can instruct Naipaul in the country music centred on Nashville, for that music, of which he says he previously knew nothing, joins with the cult of Presley and the fundamentalism and the underlying melancholy of the region to give Naipaul a sense of ‘a whole distinctive culture, something I never imagined existing in the United States’. Although he also met no less an author than Eudora Welty, the artist to whom Naipaul devotes his most intimate study is Bob McDill, a writer of songs, a poet taken seriously though working in a popular medium, highly commercialised yet inseparable from that culture – to which the South hangs on doggedly, but doubtless, we gather from Naipaul’s tone, unavailingly. Another deep-rooted element in the culture was tobacco, here quite lovingly celebrated – you feel you could use Naipaul’s pages as a manual on harvesting the crop – but it, too, is dying, finally no more than another symptom or image of the dying culture, which is itself an image of so many others. Reporting the world and its past, the past as a wound, the present as loss, has been Naipaul’s dedication and business, a sort of unillusioned mourning.

The Civil War wounded the South, and so did Reconstruction, and Industrialisation, and Desegregation. Among those who shared the common view of the Ante-Bellum past as a sort of paradise, but held it in a more than commonly lofty way, was the poet Allen Tate, the subject here of an admiringly candid memoir by Walter Sullivan. Tate’s reputation is in its posthumous slump, except perhaps in Nashville and Sewanee, but he is too interesting to stay down for ever. He was one of the Fugitives, all for Agrarianism and social hierarchy, and a religion to bond it that was as remote as can be imagined from modern fundamentalism. He was the author of the ‘Ode to the Confederate Dead’, a poet much admired by Eliot, and he wrote one of the best novels of the old South. And of course he was a foundation New Critic. He was recklessly generous and very selfish (though still self-destructive), especially where women were concerned; he could be unscrupulous, he made mischief, and it was impossible not to like him. Sullivan, twenty-five years Tate’s junior and a close but respectful friend, is an accomplished writer, and he makes it easy to understand why so many people were willing to put up, and drink too much, with this toplofty, Catholic-bohemian, gossiping, womanising sage. Sullivan remarks, with characteristic neatness, that although Tate preferred not to hurt his women, ‘he did not prefer it enough to refrain from doing what he wanted to do.’ Tate spent much of his life in the North, and the events of the Sixties changed his views about the people he was still, in 1961, calling the ‘Nigras’ (he advocated a generous version of what he was willing to call Apartheid), but he remained always a Southern writer, a man of that nation. So, in the best sense, is Sullivan; his prose remembers an old Southern virtue of perceptive courtesy. It survives, though doubtless moribund, like nearly everything else. It might have interested Naipaul, who learned rather sadly to admire so much about the South, but seems not to have come upon this virtue, possibly because on his visit to Nashville he seems to have to have attended more to the Grand Old Opry than to Vanderbilt.

John Updike, though intensely American, has nothing to do with the South, and his autobiographical chapters deal mostly with his childhood in Pennsylvania and the time between then and now, when he has lived mostly in Massachusetts, mostly by the sea. He expresses surprise at hearing his prose called ‘self-indulgent’, thinking of it rather as ‘other-indulgent’ – an attempt to get the perceived world into words. ‘My models were the styles of Proust and Henry Green ... styles of tender exploration that tried to wrap themselves around the things, the tints and voices and perfumes, of the apprehended real.’ This is quite credible. He cannot hope to slow down to Proust’s pace, or match the idiosyncratic astringency of Green, but these writers could still show him what it was to have a style, to be visibly a writer: ‘there is no hiding that the effort is being made in language.’ Those who dislike Updike’s prose tend to do so because they have a quite different idea of what writing ought to be – say, transparent, unwilling to affirm its existence as writing: so that by them his extraordinary virtuosity is treated not as a virtue but as a defect.

His Combray is no such place as Proust’s, nor is it a pre-war South; it is a post-war Shillington, Pa, thoroughly celebrated in the opening chapter; a poor but not destitute middle-American boyhood. His finishing school, after Harvard, was the New Yorker, in which journal he still appears, and the chapter on his psoriasis has been famous since its appearance there four years ago. It is a remarkable piece. Apprehending the real is done in part by the skin, and to spend a large part of one’s life coping with an exaggerated idea of its ugliness, of the difference it makes between the sufferer and everybody else, must affect one’s perceptions of the world, and also, perhaps, ensure that the other senses are constantly seeking to get outside the skin and into those tints and voices and perfumes. ‘Whenever in my timid life I have shown some courage and originality it has been because of my skin.’ It made him 4F for America’s wars, and it kept him out of jobs that seemed to demand that he be presentable. He needed a solitary craft like writing, and a schedule that allowed him to spend hours at the beach alone with his sores ‘like a sin-soaked anchorite of old repairing to the desert’, to ‘bake and cure myself’.

Then there was the stutter, subject of another brilliant chapter, the best thing on the subject since Philip French’s essay ‘O Word, Word that I lack’, written as far back as 1966. Everybody has known really grotesque stammerers, and Updike clearly isn’t one, but the speech hesitation, however slight, was almost as important as the psoriasis. He links it with another inability to get the spoken words out, his asthma, attacks of which are dauntingly described and intimately related to the topic of death. Death, or the fear of it, is a principal concern of this Life, and indeed it may be that it goes on prematurely and too much about old age, and its only end.

But all this is done with a sort of genial candour, and so is the mid-life middle-class explosion of sex in Ipswich in the Sixties. Updike considers, among much else, his luck. Has he suffered enough? Should he, driving home completely stoned, have had an accident, like other people? He warns his grandchildren that all lives are failures if you consider their unfulfilled possibilities, and goes on to stress the importance, if there aren’t to be too many such, of defending oneself ‘against the claims even of virtue’. They may find the first remark over-scrupulous, but the second will seem true, at any rate in grandfather’s case. Nearly everything has conspired to make his a fulfilled life; even ‘the distant putridity’ he claims to smell on his fingers is ‘somehow satisfying’. There are few wasted days on which he writes nothing that cannot appear, to his satisfaction, in print. His very insecurities, as he says, helped him to what he wanted, a life enhanced by ‘a touch of wealth and celebrity’ – ‘a mini-Mailer in our small salt-water pond, a stag of sorts in our herd of housewife does, flirtatious, malicious, greedy for my quota of life’s pleasures, a distracted, mediocre father and worse husband’. So much, at any rate, for one of his selves, ‘an obnoxious show-off, rapacious and sneaky, and, in the service of his own ego, remorseless’. Another self, older, wiser, acknowledges that younger one (a source of royalties, after all); it has its own pleasures, but thinks more, and with a more cultivated terror, of death and God.

It is in the last chapter, ‘On Being a Self Forever’, that a certain self-disgust declares itself, grimly relieved by the thought that the self can not only protect itself but condone its own end; relieved also by moments when mere being seems ecstatic and happiness available and radiant on one’s doorstep, free of the lies of life and the lies of fiction. A fortunate life, though vexed and shadowed not only by a native scepticism but by that Barthian God. It seems impossible that anybody could read this book without acknowledging that Updike is, of living writers – like their predecessors, a tormented, self-indulgent, self-absorbed tribe – a chosen one: one of the very best.

[*] Naipaul may have chosen this as his ‘last’ travel report because it has been suggested that he was unsympathetic to people of African origin – ‘definite hostility’, according to Selwyn R. Cudjoe (V.S. Naipaul: A Materialist Reading, University of Massachusetts Press, distributed in the UK by Eurospan, 304 pp., $13.95, October 1988, 0 87023 630 2). Cudjoe commends Naipaul’s honesty on this issue but adds: ‘His relationship with Africans remains a puzzling enigma and brings him to a dead end. He can go no further creatively until he comes to terms with the African part of his heritage.’ Another book about Naipaul, primarily interested in the works and traditions that have affected his writing about colonialism and post-colonialism, and less parti-pris politically, is John Thieme’s The Web of Tradition: Uses of Allusion in V.S. Naipaul’s Fiction (Hansib/Dangaroo, £6.95, 224 pp., 1987).