A House for Mr. Biswas: Fifty Years Later
Folks, Jeffrey, Modern Age
This year marks the bicentennial of the publication of one of the great novels of the twentieth century. I suppose that the occasion will be noted in academic quarters with the publication of the customary collection of essays, many of the individual contributions ambivalent if not hostile to V. S. Naipaul's lifelong project of conservative mythmaking. Certainly, in the half century since the appearance of A House for Mr. Bisivas, critical opinion toward Naipaul's fiction would appear to have been much tainted by liberal bias. Writing in The Nation, for example, Michael Wood, apparently oblivious to the fact that there might be cause for concern about the state of contemporary social norms, bemoaned "Naipaul's serious devotion to his own gloom." (1) In a review of Magic Seeds, one of Naipaul's more recent novels, Siddhartha Deb allowed that "Naipaul's novels have often succeeded against the grain of his conservatism," this after asserting that "the old prejudices [against Maoists and peasants, among other objects] have expanded to devour almost everything appealing about his writing." (2) It would seem to many that a "prejudice" against Maoists is not such a bad thing, but in the groves of academe, in which most literary critics make their living, apparently it is.
Even more unkind is the review-essay that Terry Eagleton published in Harper's two years after Naipaul was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. As if to counteract the effect of the award, Eagleton attempts to reduce Naipaul's career to the predictable terms of the emigre writer, one of those like Conrad, Yeats, or Eliot (not bad company, one would think) who "compensate for their outsider status by becoming honorary aristocrats" within the larger cosmopolitan society. Having laced Naipaul into the straitjacket of Marxist critique, Eagleton proceeds to lay on with ad hominem ("Like Gulliver, Naipaul finds the same pettiness, corruption, and betrayal everywhere he goes") and sheer derision: writing of Naipaul's portrayal of guerilla leaders in the novel In a Free State, Eagleton opines that "Naipaul has only to sniff an ideal to detect in it the stirrings of self-aggrandizement." (3) Is it impolitic to remind Professor Eagleton that the colonial emancipators in question--as in the section of the novel entitled "Tell Me Who to Kill"--are all too often sinister, ruthless murderers, not "idealists"? Even more extraordinary is the charge that Naipaul's realism is actually "the lopsided antirealism of one who can hardly bring himself to acknowledge the realities of love and courage." (4) What else is Naipaul's heroic career of undeviating devotion to the truth, even in the face of unrelenting attack on the part of the left-wing literary establishment, if not a testament to love and courage." (5) For those who are in any doubt, a reexamination of A House for Mr. Biswas should suffice to clarify the nature of Naipaul's moral compassion and artistic accomplishment.
Like all great works of art, A House for Mr. Biswas is deceptively simple in its design. Composed in a modest vernacular idiom, the novel is a chronological account of the life of a man who, through a lifetime of aspiration and effort, rises from his status as a village sign painter and store clerk to become a provincial journalist. The ruling passion of this simple man, Mohun Biswas, is to establish a secure abode for his family, separate from his oppressive in-laws. What he seeks on a deeper level, however, as becomes clear in the course of several painful relocations, is not merely physical shelter--a house--but a "home" in which the noblest instincts of humanity will thrive. What he requires is liberty for himself and for his family: the freedom to exercise his mind and to pursue his dream of a decent, purposeful existence. In the course of telling this story, Naipaul expresses a profound sense of the goodness of life, and of its corollary, the virtue of continuity. Based on an underlying belief in goodness, one may be confident that life will continue into the future even after the demise of an individual human being. …