V.S. Naipaul, Latin Literature and Ancient Rome: Part I

Jaspreet Singh Boparai

Part I: A Classical Education

Sir Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul, winner of the 2001 Nobel Prize for Literature.

V.S. Naipaul, Modern Classic

Sir Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul (1932–2018) is one of the greatest authors of the 20th century. His is the finest body of English-language prose to have emerged since the Second World War; he is the only novelist of his generation whose works bear comparison to those of Thomas Hardy, Henry James and Joseph Conrad. Among Naipaul’s peers, only the poet Philip Larkin (1922–85) and the playwright Sir Tom Stoppard (born in 1937) enjoy the same authentically classic stature; nobody else’s work will survive as long.

Larkin was a self-consciously minor poet who bore witness to England’s decline; Stoppard has spent his career playfully exploring English traditions whilst seeking to reveal the good in them; Naipaul began by memorialising the parochial society in which he grew up, then developed into a chronicler of the cultures that he knew within the former British Empire; at last he combined his vocations as a mythographer, anthropologist and storyteller, and created an oeuvre in which novels, sharply observed essays, autobiographical memoirs and extended accounts of his travels all attain equal grandeur and permanence.

V.S. Naipaul, c.1965.

With his rare combination of deep sympathy and radical lack of pity, Naipaul resembled one of the sages of archaic Greece – Lycurgus, the semi-legendary lawgiver of Sparta; or Solon, the Athenian statesman and legislator; or Herodotus, the first historian. Like these men, he owed much of his knowledge to extended periods of travel around the world. He travelled, not for pleasure or to make money, but to learn about people.

Naipaul did not know Greek, but he studied Latin at school, and continued to study Classical literature throughout his life, mainly in Loeb Classical Library editions. He remembered enough Latin to be able to check English translations against the original text, and digested his favourite ancient books so thoroughly that their influence often seems invisible. Unlike many of his peers, he was never prone to showing off his learning. Only in his seventies did Naipaul discuss his engagements with Roman literature at any length. Yet the evidence was always there, for those who had eyes to see it.

Seepersad Naipaul (1906–53) with his car in 1935.

Filial Piety

On 17th August 1932 V.S. Naipaul was born in Trinidad. His father Seepersad Naipaul (1906–53) was a sign painter who rose to become a newspaper journalist, and always aspired to greater literary glory; his mother, the formidable Droapatie Naipaul (1913–91), came from the Capildeo family, which has produced an unusual number of prominent writers and politicians.[1]

Naipaul’s forebears left India to work as indentured labourers. The Capildeos prospered, and became a major landowning family in central Trinidad.[2] Seepersad, by contrast, struggled financially throughout his life; but his most famous son adored him, and paid tribute to him again and again throughout his oeuvre, most touchingly in his celebrated 1961 novel A House for Mr Biswas, whose main character is based on Seepersad:

Mr Biswas never went to work on the estates. Events which were to occur presently led him away from all that. They did not lead him to riches, but made it possible for him to console himself later in life with the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, which he rested on the Slumberking bed in the one room which contained most of his possessions.[3]

Epictetus in dispute with the Emperor Hadrian; illustration (1436) from a manuscript of the Altercatio Hadriani Augusti et Epicteti philosophi (Oxford Bodleian Library, MS Canon. Misc. 378, f.78r).

Mr Biswas’ readings in Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus give him great pleasure, yet he never seems to learn anything from them. Seepersad Naipaul appears to have been rather cannier about his self-education (though he shared Mr Biswas’ taste in Stoic philosophers). Indeed, his achievements as an autodidact are astonishing. After a rudimentary education in Hindi and English, he seems quite literally to have taught himself how to read serious literature.

His son’s 1982 memoir “Prologue to an Autobiography” (originally published in the magazine Vanity Fair, then reprinted in Finding the Centre: Two Narratives in 1984) reveals just how hard Seepersad had to fight to attain even a modest level of learning.[4] He gave his son his first taste of Classical antiquity when he read him the story of Perseus from The Heroes: Greek Fairy Tales (1856) by Charles Kingsley (1819–75). But Seepersad had little taste for myth himself: he was something of a flippant sceptic, particularly where traditional religious devotions were concerned. 

Perseus rescuing Andromeda: engraved frontispiece by W.T. Green for Charles Kingsley’s The Heroes (1856).

Seepersad was neither an atheist nor a ‘secular humanist’, of course. He was attracted to the ascetic, philosophically-oriented Arya Samaj movement within Hinduism, which originated in an attempt radically to reform Hindu worship through belief in the infallibility of the Vedas, the most ancient and sacred of all Sanskrit holy texts.[5] But in the world Seepersad lived in, to question traditional devotions was to commit sacrilege, and he was punished with severe public humiliation for his irreverence.

Naipaul himself practised no Hindu devotions, held no obviously Hindu beliefs, and retained only a few of his ancestors’ rituals and customs, mainly in attenuated form. As a mature writer, he apparently believed in nothing more transcendent than scientific laws and mathematical truths; but he maintained a deep respect for ritual and order. His father’s experience must have helped shape his attitudes to religion:

This word, religion, has been misused so much. Please understand that Livy, writing his history of Rome – you know, a man 2,000 years ago at the beginning of the Christian era, roughly that cross-over period – said that the Romans were the most religious people of the world which was the reason for their success. By that he meant that they always consulted their gods. They always did their sacrifice, never performed actions before testing the auguries, having the priest consider things before they were done. They never acted just like that. They had a great sense of awe, Livy was saying that. And then of course, at that very time their religion was being replaced by something else.[6]

The Emperor Marcus Aurelius offering sacrifice: detail from a Roman relief, AD c.180 (Musei Capitolini, Rome, Italy).

Religion seemed a matter of pure tradition for Naipaul even in childhood:

I didn’t know Sanskrit, or the Hindi of religious discourse, and had (like the ancient Romans) learned to live with the idea that our religion, though personal to us, a private possession, was a mystery, conducted in a language which we children couldn’t now understand, the emblems of some of its rituals at once village-like and familiar and far away: the plastered-earth altar, our version of the turf altar of the classical world, planted with a cut-down young banana tree, with the sacrificial aromatic fire of pitch-pine chips fed with clarified butter and brown sugar.[7]

Detail of a sacrifice from the ‘Bridgeness Slab’, a Roman relief, AD c.142 (National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh, UK).

Naipaul’s consistently anthropological approach to religion in many ways parallels that of the French historian Numa Denis Fustel de Coulanges (1830–89), whose innovative 1864 study La Cité antique (first translated into English in 1874 as The Ancient City) uses Greco-Roman religious beliefs and practices as the basis for examining the laws, customs and institutions of ancient societies. In his 1976 foreword to his father’s stories, Naipaul describes his delight at first reading The Ancient City and discovering that “many of the customs, which with us in Trinidad, even in my childhood, were still like instincts, had survived from the pre-classical world.”[8]

Of course, with a writer of Naipaul’s sensitivity, a little inspiration goes a long way. In “Prologue to an Autobiography” he describes his studies of Ancient Rome during his last two years of school as “the most awakening part of my formal education”. Did he really need books like The Ancient City to help him form his attitudes? Or was it enough simply to observe the world around him, once he began to awaken to the realities of history?

Portrait of Theodor Mommsen, Ludwig Knaus, 1881 (Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin, Germany).

A Historian of Rome

In his mature work, Naipaul’s vision of history seems to owe a great deal to the Classicist Theodor Mommsen (1817–1903), whose monumental History of Rome (1854–6) is a masterly demonstration of sceptical, critical reading. Mommsen refuses to take his literary sources at their word; modern readers are often taken aback by his witty deflations of Cicero, Cato the Younger and other heroes of the Late Republic, and his open admiration of Julius Caesar. Some scholars make the mistake of assuming that Mommsen’s opinions became Naipaul’s; but Naipaul is himself never an uncritical reader.

A Belgian historian of Africa named Raymond pontificates at some length about his admiration for Mommsen in A Bend in the River (1979), partly as a means of explaining and defending his own career: 

I don’t think it is sufficiently understood how hard it is to write about what has never been written about before. The occasional academic paper on a particular subject, the Bapende rebellion or whatever – that has its own form. The larger narrative is another matter. And that’s why I have begun to consider Theodor Mommsen the giant of modern historical writing. Everything that we now discuss about the Roman Republic is only a continuation of Mommsen. The problems, the issues, the very narrative, especially of those extraordinarily troubled years of the later Republic – you might say that the German genius discovered it all. Of course Theodor Mommsen had the comfort of knowing that his subject was a great one. Those of us who work in our particular field have no such assurance. We have no idea of the value posterity will place on the events we attempt to chronicle…[9]

Detail of a sacrifice from the ‘Census Frieze’, part of the altar of Domitius Ahenobarbus, c.122 BC (Musée du Louvre, Paris, France).

Shortly afterwards he trails off and returns to his desk, leaving his wife to entertain their guests. In context, this does not seem a particularly impressive speech; Raymond comes off as a bore. Anybody would for talking like this at a party. He also seems strangely anxious and distracted, as though he has forgotten how to handle himself in social situations. Once he leaves the room to get back to work, it becomes clear that Raymond is not widely respected in that circle of people. Now that his political influence has started to crumble, so has the esteem in which he is held, even by supposed friends.

Some of Raymond’s views seem shrewd, and sound like the author’s; but we never know how seriously we should take Raymond, who after all enjoys power as a close adviser to a brutal dictator, then falls from grace and ends up being cuckolded. In this way Raymond is like Seneca, who sounds so endearingly wise and cultured in his prose, but fell disastrously short of his own standards in his personal conduct, and as an adviser to the emperor Nero. How should knowledge of a man’s life affect our judgment of his views? Naipaul leaves the question open.

Mythological portrait of Louis XIV and the Royal Family, Jean Nocret, 1670 (“Oeil-de-Boeuf” Salon, Palace of Versailles, France).

A Subject of Empire

Naipaul didn’t study English in the Sixth Form, and had no special attraction to English poetry: his best subjects at school were French and Spanish. Many classic works of literature were all but incomprehensible to him as a teenager, not on account of the language, but because they dealt with social worlds that seemed radically alien to his experience:

To read, in this setting, about the court of Louis XIV (in the ‘Teach Yourself History’ series in order to get background for Molière and the others), or the French Revolution, or the baffling political changes of the nineteenth century in France, was to read about a fairyland. No one seemed real. What was a court? Who were courtiers? What was an aristocrat? I had to make them up in my mind, though for the most part I left them as words. In this way I picked up many facts, insubstantial, hard to get a grip on, but I lived in a cloud of not-knowing, and the world around me, in my grandmother’s house during its religious occasions, and in my school books, was a blur. I lived easily with this; it had come to me, strangely, with my education, my little learning, and I thought only that was how it was. This was the lack of vision I took with me to England with my bright boy’s scholarship. I had first to understand the lack, and had then to read and write myself out of it.[10]

Although Trinidad remained a British colony until 1962, the English that most people spoke around Naipaul was closer to American than British English. American radio programs, movies and popular music dominated the culture; American stars were universally known, and it was easy to pick up elements of their speech, slang, jokes or general style to create a character for oneself. In Naipaul’s early short-story collection Miguel Street (published in 1959), one of the more memorable characters is a tailor named Bogart:

It was something of a mystery why he was called Bogart; but I suspect that it was Hat who gave him the name. I don’t know if you remember the year the film Casablanca was made. That was the year when Bogart’s fame spread like fire through Port of Spain and hundreds of young men began adopting the hard-boiled Bogartian attitude.

Humphrey Bogart in the final scene from Casablanca (1942).

Casablanca was released in 1942; Humphrey Bogart (1899–1957) is no longer a universally-recognisable archetype. But in the Trinidad in which Naipaul grew up, British English and the culture of the British Empire already seemed quaint. When Naipaul arrived in England at the age of eighteen to take up a scholarship at Oxford he sometimes had difficulty understanding the English that was spoken around him. Much of his self-education as a writer involved freeing himself from American influence.

One of the epigraphs to the “Trinidad” section of Naipaul’s 1962 travel book The Middle Passage: Impressions of Five Colonial Societies is translated from Tacitus’ Agricola, which Naipaul first encountered as a schoolboy:

In place of distaste for the Latin language came a passion to command it. In the same way, our national dress came into favour and the toga was everywhere to be seen. And so the Britons were gradually led on to the amenities that make vice agreeable – arcades, baths and sumptuous banquets. They spoke of such novelties as ‘civilisation’, when really they were a feature of enslavement.

The ambiguities and ironies here would take some time to discuss. We may add to these the further irony that most current academic specialists on Naipaul’s work are unable to discuss them, because they have not read Tacitus’ Agricola even in English.

The final colonial-era coat of arms of Trinidad and Tobago (1958–62).

Latin in Trinidad

If you look at the old coats of arms for the Colony of Trinidad and Tobago, you see the motto “MISCERIQUE PROBAT POPULOS ET FOEDERA JUNGI”, which is usually translated thus: ‘He approves of the mingling of the peoples and their bonds of union’.

This motto was first used by Sir Ralph Abercromby (1734–1801), who invaded Trinidad in 1797 and made it a British crown colony. It is a slight alteration of some lines from the fourth book of the Aeneid. In the passage (lines 90–128) where Juno and Venus meet to discuss the fate of Aeneas, Venus has a little speech (107–14):

sic contra est ingressa Venus: “quis talia demens
abnuat aut tecum malit contendere bello?
si modo quid memoras factum fortuna sequatur.
sed fatis incerta feror, si Iuppiter unam
esse velit Tyriis urbem Troiaque profectis,
miscerive probet populos aut foedera iungi.
tu coniunx, tibi fas animum temptare precando.
perge, sequar.”

In H. Rushton Fairclough’s translation from the Loeb Classical Library (as revised slightly in 1999 by G.P. Goold) this reads:

Venus thus began in reply: “Who so mad as to refuse such terms, or prefer to strive against you in war, as long as Fortune favour the fulfilment of your word? But the Fates send me adrift, uncertain whether Jupiter wills that there be one city for the Tyrians and the wanderers from Troy, or approves the blending of peoples and the league of union. You are his wife; it is lawful for you to try to persuade his heart with entreaty. Go on; I will follow!” 

Portrait of Sir Ralph Abercromby, John Hoppner, 1798 (National Portrait Gallery, London, UK).

There is no need to theorise elaborately about Abercromby’s emendations. He had enough Latin rattling around in his head from schooldays to be able to remember a vaguely appropriate-sounding line from the Aeneid and make a few slight alterations to render it fit for purpose. Yet for Naipaul the phrase must have initially seemed like one of those Sanskrit phrases from his mother’s family’s religious rituals. But by the time he left Trinidad he knew enough Latin to be able to read the entire fourth book of the Aeneid; Abercromby’s line would turn up later, in his 1979 novel A Bend in the River.

In a 2008 interview with the Trinidadian politician and academic Bhoendradatt Tewarie, Naipaul mentioned another Latin phrase that resonated (albeit faintly) through the colony’s history: this one was associated with Sir Ralph Woodford (1784–1828), who served as Governor of Trinidad from 1812 to his death in 1828:

There was a sign above the old jail which I saw in 1968, lovely Georgian lettering in bronze – PRO REGE ET LEGE – which means ‘for King and Law’, and Woodford was saying by that, those beautiful mottoes [sic] in Latin, that now there will be law here. There wouldn’t be whimsical autocratic rule and I thought that should have stayed up on the jail not only as a part of history but because of what it says about no autocracy. It was taken down. I don’t know where that beautiful bit of bronze lettering is.[11]

Sir Ralph Woodford, watercolour on ivory by M. Haughton, c.1812 (priv. coll.)

Naipaul’s 1967 novel The Mimic Men features what appear to be flashbacks to Naipaul’s own Latin classes as a teenager. The main character, Ralph Singh (formerly Ranjit Kripalsingh) is a former politician who was born on the Caribbean island of Isabella (an obvious fictionalised stand-in for Trinidad); his life obliquely mirrors that of the author, not always in flattering ways. It would be misleading to describe the novel as straightforwardly autobiographical; yet Naipaul’s depictions of Latin lessons with the theatrically pedantic, flamboyant, monocle-wearing schoolmaster “Major Grant” are among the sections that have the ring of authentic experience.

The Mimic Men is purportedly Ralph Singh’s memoir, composed during his exile in dreary suburbs of London after his fall from grace on Isabella: he muses from time to time on stray memories from school:

Virtus: how could anyone who had gone through Isabella Imperial and studied Latin with Major Grant fail to know the meaning of that word?[12]

Roman sacrificial altar of Virtus, 3rd cent. AD (Römisch-Germanisches Museum, Cologne, Germany).

Later (Part Two, Chapter Three), Ralph recounts an episode from one of Major Grant’s lessons on Vergil. Major Grant’s relationship with his pupils was jocularly hostile. He made fun of Ralph Singh’s father for being a radical political leader (of sorts); this led to a digression on strikes: the first strike, or secessio, occurred in 494 BC, or 259 AUC “Ab Urbe Condita”. This sounds like the sort of fact that schoolmasters enjoy dropping into lessons. Also convincing-sounding is Major Grant’s failed attempt to make fun of a pupil that caused him to turn red in the face and resume construing Vergil.

Naipaul never quite developed the knack of being able to read Latin texts fluently without the aid of a lexicon, grammar and/or facing-page translation. But he had enough grounding in the language to enable a bit of perspective, not just on grammar, syntax, rhetoric and the various problems involved in expression and communication; it gave him a fixed point of reference. Also, it allowed him to escape his turbulent, often suffocating family life: without that A Level in Latin, he would never have been eligible for the university scholarship that enabled him to leave home.

Alcibiades returning to Athens: illustration by Walter Crane for Mary McGregor’s The Story of Greece; Told to Boys and Girls (1912).

Classical Escape

In The Mimic Men, Ralph Singh discusses his youthful desire to leave home in curiously Classical terms:

I have read that it was a saying of an ancient Greek that the first requisite for happiness was to be born in a famous city. It is one of those sayings which, because they deal with the particular and the concrete, like the instructions on a bottle of patent medicine, can appear flippant, except to those who have experienced their truth. To be born on an island like Isabella, an obscure New World transplantation, second-hand and barbarous, was to be born to disorder. From an early age, almost from my first lesson at school about the weight of the king’s crown, I had sensed this. Now I was to discover that disorder has its own logic and permanence: the Greek was wise. Even as I was formulating my resolve to escape, there began that series of events which, while sharpening my desire to get away, yet rooted me more firmly to the locality where accident had placed me.[13]

According to Plutarch’s life of Demosthenes, the commonplace about “the first requisite for happiness” comes from a poem that was composed in honour of Alcibiades when he entered seven teams in the chariot race at the Olympic Games in 416 BC, and won the first, second and fourth prizes. The poem, which may have been Euripides’ work, is lost; Plutarch mentions it only because he disagrees with it, and thinks the poet has a faulty vision of happiness, which is surely based in virtue, not good luck.[14]

Portrait of Plutarch from André Thevet’s Vrais portraits et vies des hommes illustres (Paris, 1584).

Ralph Singh does not seem to be aware of any of this; whereas Naipaul probably was. Yet most of Naipaul’s readers would never pick up on such a sly, subtle literary allusion, which feels like a private joke. Plutarch’s oeuvre is by no means unknown, but most of his work has become unfamiliar even to professional Classicists: the Parallel Lives and Moralia seem to be read these days mainly by amateurs and autodidacts. Evidently Naipaul is winking here at preferred members of his audience. Or is he?

As for the king’s crown: this is a reference to Archimedes of Syracuse (circa 287–212 BC) and the (probably apocryphal) story from Vitruvius (De Architectura 9) involving King Hiero II (308–215 BC), Tyrant of Syracuse, who asked Archimedes to determine whether a votive crown that he had been given was made of pure gold. Archimedes was pondering the question as he entered a bathtub. Seeing how his body displaced the water gave him an idea; in his excitement he shouted out εὕρηκα – Eureka! – “I’ve found it!” – just as he figured out how to measure the volume of the crown, and ran home naked to act on his sudden flash of inspiration.

The Archimedes anecdote is a commonplace; you have heard the “Eureka!”/“I’ve found it!” story even if you have never read a word of Vitruvius and know nothing of Latin or Greek language or literature. Ralph Singh refers to the anecdote in passing purely as a vague means of signalling how old he was when he first began to think about his misfortune in having been born on Isabella. For Naipaul its significance is richer.

16th-century print of Archimedes in the bath (source unclear).

Archimedes, in running naked down the street exclaiming “I’ve found it!” sounds like a comical eccentric from Miguel Street. But he was an internationally revered intellectual at the court of one of the wealthiest city-states of antiquity. Syracuse was also a centre of learning and culture. Plutarch recounts how, at the end of the disastrous Athenian military expedition to Sicily (415–413 BC), the Syracusans completely destroyed the invading forces, with all soldiers killed or captured. Many of the surviving Athenians were sold into slavery; but any prisoners who could share even a few scraps of Euripides’ poetry were released and allowed to return home.[15]

Could a man like Archimedes make full use of his gifts, enjoy honour in his lifetime, and be remembered forever afterwards if he came from a place like the fictional island of Isabella? Ralph Singh’s answer would be an emphatic “No”; Naipaul’s might be more qualified. Yet he could see the merit in Ralph Singh’s position: his father’s failures always haunted him; and until middle age he was frightened at the thought of being forced to return home.

In 1960, the Trinidadian government invited Naipaul to come back for a short visit; this was his first time home in a decade:

When one arrives for the first time in a city, and especially if one arrives at night, the people in the streets have, just for that moment, a special quality: they are adepts in a ritual that the traveller doesn’t know; they are moving from one mystery to another. But driving now through Port of Spain, seeing the groups lounging at corners, around flambeaux-lit stalls and coconut carts, I missed this thrill, and was distressed, not so much by the familiarity, as by the feeling of continuation. The years I had spent abroad fell away and I could not be sure which was the reality in my life: the first eighteen years in Trinidad or the later years in England. I had never wanted to stay in Trinidad. When I was in the fourth form I wrote a vow on the endpaper of my Kennedy’s Revised Latin Primer to leave within five years. I left after six; and for many years afterwards in England, falling asleep in bedsitters with the electric fire on, I had been awakened by the nightmare that I was back in tropical Trinidad.[16]

The all-too-common fate of Kennedy’s Shorter Latin Primer in the classroom.

The detail of Kennedy’s Revised Latin Primer reveals the degree to which Latin was associated in Naipaul’s mind with freedom from what he saw as a society in which he would be doomed to remain as thwarted as his father had been if he could not find a way to escape. He could not see a place for himself in the world in which he grew up, at least if he was to fulfil his vocation as a writer.

In 1949, Naipaul won a prestigious government scholarship and decided to use it to study English Literature at Oxford. He was not allowed to leave for England until August 1950, after he turned eighteen. Whilst waiting, he worked for a year in Port of Spain, as he recounts in his 1994 volume A Way in the World. One day he went with a former classmate from school to visit a well-known local lawyer:

The lawyer was famous for his first name, which was Evander. All I could think of, at this artificial moment, was to ask how he had been given it.

He said, ‘My father worshipped education. It was his way of giving me ambition. He was not an educated man. But he was born in 1867 or 1870. That’s a long time ago for us. If you look it up, you’ll find the name in Homer. Book four or book five.’

It was surprising, that this famous man hadn’t gone into his unusual name, didn’t know that the name came from Latin and Vergil, and had simply tried to bluff me. He was a self-made man. He hadn’t had anything like a formal education; all his energies had gone into his profession and making his way. But this flaw in his character, so casually revealed, was worrying. While I was getting used to that new idea of him, he was taking the conversation, by ways I cannot reconstruct, to something else.[17]

Evander and Aeneas at Pallentium, print by Wenceslaus Holler, mid-17th cent.

The ‘something else’ turns out to be race, which is far more absorbing to the lawyer than the details of where his first name came from. In Vergil, Evander of Pallantium first appears in the eighth book of the Aeneid: he is a distant kinsman of Aeneas’, and knew his late father Anchises in the days before the Trojan War; inevitably he agrees to an alliance in Aeneas’ war against Turnus and the Rutuli.

The seventeen-year-old Naipaul must have known of Evander only at second hand: then as now, those studying the Aeneid in Latin rarely read beyond the first half of the epic (Books 1, 2, 4 and 6 being the ones most commonly examined at school level). Evander the lawyer’s apparent philistinism reduced him to the level of every single other grown-up in that world (other than some of the schoolmasters). At least Homer and Vergil were names to Evander. Naipaul’s parents and most of his extended family would not have even heard the names of Latin or Greek authors, or figures from Classical history or myth.

V.S. Naipaul in one of his favourite hats.

Naipaul thought that by going to Oxford, he would escape the chaos and melodrama of his extended family and the society around him, and find a world in which he had peers and an audience, and elders whose knowledge was authentic, rather than part of a masquerade. He would rapidly learn that ignorance, disorder, vulgarity, philistinism and loneliness exist in England too.

Jaspreet Singh Boparai recently abandoned academia to cultivate the Muses. He has previously written on Tacitus and the thrill of writing here, on the challenges of translating (pseudo-)Latin here, on the pleasures of Poussin here, on Neo-Latin syphilis here, and on Apuleius the ‘witch’ here.

Part II of this essay can be read here.

Further Reading

The best starting point for those new to V.S. Naipaul’s work is The Writer and the World: Essays (2002; edited by Pankaj Mishra). For a taste of his fiction, start with his early stories in the Everyman Library’s 2011 edition of Collected Short Stories. After that, you should slowly go through everything he wrote in the order he wrote it, beginning with The Mystic Masseur (1957). That way you can follow his progress, and watch as he grows in stature.

Do bear in mind that there is no point in binge-reading Naipaul’s work, or guiltlessly skipping pages, as is possible with (for example) Dickens, Balzac, Hugo and Tolstoy. Treat him as you would a Classical author, and allow intervals between books. Absorb his prose slowly.


1 A modern Hindu in India would spell Naipaul’s parents’ names as “Sreeprasad” and “Draupadi”. Many Hindu names were garbled by colonial officials in the 19th and early 20th centuries; nowadays, spellings such as “Seepersad” and “Droapatie” often seem quaint, like Raj-era transliterations of “Hindu”, “Punjabi” and “Sikh” as “Hindoo”, “Punjaubee” and “Sicque”.
2 Members of the Capildeo family continue to maintain an interesting website detailing some of the family’s history For more Naipaul (and Capildeo) family history, see Savi Naipaul Akal’s 2018 memoir The Naipauls of Nepaul Street (although the author, Naipaul’s sister, is often uncompromisingly harsh about her brother). Seepersad Naipaul’s The Adventures of Gurudeva was published in 1976 with a foreword by V.S. Naipaul, and reissued in 1995. His charming letters to Naipaul (edited by Gillon Aitken and published in 1999 as Letters Between A Father and Son) remain in print. A collection of his journalism is due to be published next year by Peepal Tree Press, along with a new edition of The Adventures of Gurudeva.
3 From A House for Mr Biswas, Part One, Chapter One “Pastoral”.
4 Finding the Centre is out of print; the text is now most easily found in Literary Occasions, a 2003 collection of Naipaul’s essays (edited by Pankaj Mishra).
5 See Naipaul’s 1976 foreword to The Adventures of Gurudeva, reprinted both in the 1995 edition of the text, and as a separate essay in Literary Occasions (2003).
6 “Not among the believers: V.S. Naipaul in conversation with Sima Sharma,” India International Centre Quarterly 28 (2001/2) 348–54.
7 From “An English Way of Looking”, an essay centring mainly around the novelist and man of letters Anthony Powell (1905–2000), in A Writer’s People: Ways of Looking and Feeling (2007).
8 As mentioned in n.4, the text will be found in both the 1976 edition of The Adventures of Gurudeva (reprinted in 1995) and Literary Occasions, Pankaj Mishra’s 2003 collection of Naipaul’s essays.
9 From the party scene in Part Two, Chapter Eight.
10 “An English way of looking” in A Writer’s People: Ways of Looking and Feeling (2007).
11 Bhoendradatt Tewarie, “Interview with V.S. Naipaul: writer and critical thinker,” in the Journal of West Indian Literature 16 (April 2008) 62–74. The date 1968 does not seem right: in Naipaul’s introduction to the 2011 edition of The Middle Passage he claims that the ‘PRO REGE ET LEGE’ sign had been taken down before his trip to Trinidad in 1960. Bhoendradatt Tewarie shared a video of this interview on his YouTube channel in March 2020.
12 From Part One, Chapter Two of The Mimic Men.
13 From the end of Chapter Two of Part Two of The Mimic Men.
14 See the opening sentences of Plutarch’s Demosthenes.
15 This story will be found at the very end of Plutarch’s Life of Nicias.
16 See the beginning of Chapter Two, “Trinidad”, in The Middle Passage: Impressions of Five Colonial Societies (1962).
17 The full anecdote will be found in Chapter Two, “Fish Glue”, of A Way in the World.