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Mr Ford’s Hacienda

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V.S. Naipaul never saw himself as just another face in the mural of 20th-century literature. The mural was, in any case, not his favourite art form. He loved and possessed a very fine collection of Persian and Indian miniatures. But this wasn’t a frame in which he saw himself either. Long before the knighthood and the Nobel Prize, it was the mirror that excited him. Destiny stared him in the face every morning. He believed in himself. The Trinidadian was to become a very fine writer of English prose.

Naipaul and C.L.R. James were educated at the same colonial school. The high quality of teaching in classics and English literature left its mark on both men. Both of them came to England. There the similarity ends. James moved to Marxism and became a great historian in that tradition. Naipaul put politics on the back-burner, joined the lesser ranks of vassalage (the BBC) and cultivated a cultural conservatism that later became his hallmark both politically and socially. The classical heritage of the European bourgeoisie had completely bewitched him. He saw it as the dominant pillar of Western civilisation and this led him to underplay, ignore and sometimes to justify its barbaric sides both at home and abroad.

In later years, James (in private conversation) would refer to Naipaul as someone who is often needed in an imperialist country trying to create a post-colonial culture so as to say things about native peoples that are no longer acceptable in polite society. Naipaul was never, by any stretch of the imagination, a card-carrying Tory. He lived his life through a circle of friends that he had carefully selected. Most, if not all, were figures on the right.

Whatever his politics, the novels were very good, especially the earlier ones. The autobiographical A House for Mr Biswas remains a comic masterpiece. And it would have made an excellent TV series, or so I thought. Would he ever agree? It wasn’t a secret that Naipaul had long opposed his work being transferred to small or big screen. Twenty-odd years ago I rang him up and was invited to lunch. He confirmed that he had always hated the idea of his work being polluted by cinema or television and told me how his excited US agent had once forced him to fly out to ‘Mr Ford’s hacienda’ to discuss filming A Bend in the River. ‘Mr Ford’ was his name for Francis Ford Coppola.

Against his own instincts, Naipaul arrived on the West Coast. At the hacienda, Coppola informed him that the only other guest apart from family would be George Lucas. Naipaul was amazed. ‘Georg Lukács, the Hungarian philosopher? I thought he was dead?’ It got worse. During supper Coppola handed Naipaul a script that he had commissioned. He wanted Naipaul to have a quick read of the adaptation and see what he thought. While handing the script, ‘Mr Ford was also trying to swallow some spaghetti which he managed to spill on his shirt. It was a very vulgar occasion. I decided to leave.’ Which he did. Since then, he had turned down every proposal.

His second wife, Nadira, whom he married in 1996, persuaded him to calm down and let Ismail Merchant commission Caryl Phillips to write a script of The Mystic Masseur. Naipaul was filled with foreboding that it might turn out to be awful. ‘It did.’ This was not a promising start. He asked why I liked A House for Mr Biswas. ‘It’s pure,’ I replied, ‘and very funny.’ He agreed we should have a go. Farrukh Dhondy, he agreed, knew the book well and Channel Four commissioned the scripts. Peter Ansorge was a stern invigilator and made sure that most of the dialogue from the novel was retained. When we discussed the scripts and possible directors over dinner at my place several months later, Naipaul and Nadira and Gillon Aitken (his agent) were pleased with the final product.

Channel Four had appointed a new boss who had brought in a new drama editor, Gub Neal, who also liked the scripts. But the marketing folk at the channel were surprised to discover that no white star could be cast in a main role, since there was none in the novel. No black stars either except in minor roles. It was Trinidadian Asians all the way through, a ‘problem’ that would never have bothered Satyajit Ray or Ken Loach. And so the project was cancelled. Naipaul was shocked but not surprised. The scripts still work and if Ian Katz seriously wants to lift C4 a tiny bit from the ratings sewer where it has been immersed for many years, he might have a read.

Comments

  1. Phil Edwards says:

    If a regular slot on BBC radio put Naipaul in “the lesser ranks of vassalage”, I dread to think what station Tariq would assign to those of us who had to go out and get jobs – helot, perhaps.

  2. S Ram says:

    That the same mind that produced apparently ‘one of the greatest works of 20th century’ could also hold vile and reactionary views is a paradox for psychologists and philosophers to grapple with. I for one don’t feel the need to discover the ‘deep’ and ‘complex’ nature of this man’s work, no matter what cultivated opinion might say.If anything it’s an indictment on high culture that a man of this character could be celebrated and rewarded with a Nobel prize. My hope is that despite the outpouring of acclaim and the attestations of the greatness of his work despite understandable flaws in his worldview, in all major publications of refined opinion,he will over time be consigned to oblivion as an odd curiosity of the age. That would be poetic justice for the way he pitilessly painted entire cultures and civilizations as ‘An area of darkness’, an apt description of his oeuvre.

    • Steve McGiffen says:

      It is an interesting paradox, though, isn’t it? Other examples were Wallace Stevens and Philip Larkin, in my view two of the English-speaking world’s finest poets, but both holding vile, reactionary, racist and sexist views. Then there’s the fine novelist Knut Hamsun, who ended his life a Nazi. I’m sure there are many, many other examples. This isn’t to defend their views, but perhaps we should find some way to separate them from their work, which, in these cases at least, were uninfected by their appalling opinions.

      • HBART says:

        Add Chaucer to the list because of the Prioresse’s tale, a virulently anti-Semitic tale of the sort used to incite pogroms. But he also gave us The Miller’s Tale and the Pardoner’s Tale.

      • Paul M says:

        I always thought that the later work was one of the more convincing arguments against the notion that we can and should sever the writer from the work. Finely crafted as it may be, reading the Enigma of Arrival I found it impossible to get past the solipsistic disregard for anyone, or anything, other than himself. Its hard not to see a faultline that runs from the ideas he expressed (and how he acted out in his life) straight into the work itself.

      • brogers999 says:

        Interesting paradox if it actually exists. To some extent it must, but it is an intriguing question: how exactly do writers with “vile reactionary views” manage to produce a body of work apparently uninflected by those views?

    • lsrinivas says:

      ‘An Area of Darkness’ was a product of his first flowering. Clearly his later books on India have to be read.

    • John Cowan says:

      Og, Son of Fire, was probably sexist as hell and intensely ethnocentric. His contribution to humankind is beyond question.

    • futuredays says:

      You could apply the same comments to Lawrence Durrell – he wrote some of the greatest novels of the mid 20th century, wonderful travel memoirs such as Bitter Lemons but despite his literary achievements he was very right wing and reactionary in his politics.

  3. ravi s says:

    Perhaps an animated adaptation of “A House for Mr Biswas” would be more appropriate than live action, given its comedic aspects.

  4. jamesmann says:

    Wasn’t ‘A House for Mr Biswas’ Naipaul’s third novel, following ‘The Mystic Masseur’ and ‘The Suffrage of Elvira’? Either way, it’s a “helluva thing”.

    • Thomas Jones says:

      Good point. The piece no longer says it was his first. Thank you.

      • AfzalS says:

        Biswas was his fourth work of fiction if you count his second book, Miguel Street, a connected collection of short stories and actually Naipaul’s first book (The Mystic Masseur was written afterwards but published first as Andre Deutsch preffered novels as first works).

    • HBART says:

      The Suffrage of Elvira is comic, satiric, but also respectful of its characters.

  5. lsrinivas says:

    Mr Tariq Ali was one of the first non Bengali Muslim to criticize Pakistan for her treatment of Bengalis in the late 60s and 70s. He deserves great credit for this clearsighted political stance. Since then I’m not sure he has been very effective or influential in combating the religious extremism of some of the south Asian communities in the UK. But that’s par for the course for any Marxist. In India they deny caste. In the UK they can’t deal with their own ethnic type. In short, they dont know how to retrofit the mid 19th century thought of Marx and Engels to emerging societies. But whatever Mr Ali’s politics, his short takes are always insightful.

    Mr Ali says of Naipaul, “Whatever his politics, the novels were very good”. He’s a writer. Not a social scientist.

  6. hag says:

    Not a huge Naipaul fan; but while I enjoyed the Coppola/Lucas anecdote, I trust that a more substantial effort by the LRB is on the way.

    • Thomas Jones says:

      If you click on ‘V.S. Naipaul’ at the beginning of the post you’ll find a dozen ‘more substantial efforts’ that we’ve published over the years.

      • hag says:

        Thanks. Very interesting – and I have even read the latest three, from 2007, 2004 and 2001 – that’s how long I have been cruising the shark-infested waters of the LRB.

        Tbh I was thinking more along the lines of an up-to-date retrospective piece, now that the author is dead. I think the man deserves it; in fact, I have no doubt that one is in the LRB pipeline.

        A snide remark about liking your reflection surely isn’t the last word here.

  7. JonathanAli says:

    Was it A Bend in the River that Coppola was set to adapt? Patrick French’s biography of Naipaul has it (twice) as Guerrillas.

  8. Terry Murphy says:

    I just read “Our Universal Civilization”. It’s interesting how Naipaul highlights the tendency of certain civilizations to want to relegate all prior cultural thought to a zone of permanent forgottenness.

  9. AfzalS says:

    A House for Mr Biswas’ would have made a great ‘Mr Ford’ Coppola movie with its very Coppola theme of wayward, domineering fathers and fractured siblings (e.g. The Godfather, Rumblefish). Even better, a Naipaul biopic perhaps? Patrick French and Paul Theroux’s biographies of Naipaul would be excellent source material!

    • Timothy Rogers says:

      Mention of Theroux reminds me of just how gassy and insubstantial celebrated writers become once they are engaged in a feud (readers enjoy these but don’t for a moment think they offer us anything other than the Schadenfreude that goes along with seeing famous people make fools of themselves; after all, such feuds are about bruised egos and clashing temperaments, not anything else they purport to be about). The one between Naipaul and Theroux back in the 1990s provided readers of literary rags (I’m one) with a great deal of comedy and a perfect illustration of the phrase ‘tempest in a teacup’. I guess they too felt sheepish about it over the years, leading to a handshake and reconciliation.


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