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

Jaspreet Singh Boparai

Part II: Joining the Classical Tradition

Part I of this essay can be read here.

“The enigma of arrival”: Sir V.S. Naipaul waits for a train at High Street Kensington station, London.

Finding a Voice

At the beginning of Michaelmas term 1950, V.S. Naipaul signed the admission register of University College, Oxford underneath the Latin words:

“Ego Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul e Collegio Reginae Sanctae in Trinitatis insula filius natu major Seepersad Naipaul de Portu Hispaniensis in Trinitatis insula lubens subscribo sub tutamine magistri Bayley annos XVIII natus.”

“I, Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul, from Queen’s Royal College on the island of Trinidad, elder son of Seepersad Naipaul of Port of Spain on the island of Trinidad, willingly assent to the tutelage of [John] Bayley MA, in my eighteenth year.”

Naipaul spent almost four years at Oxford. His father died in October 1953. Hindu tradition dictated that, as Seepersad Naipaul’s eldest son, Naipaul had a duty to light his father’s funeral pyre. But there was no way he could fly back to Trinidad for the funeral. His eight-year-old brother Shiva (1945–85), later to study at Oxford on the same scholarship as his elder brother, and then become a noted writer in his own right, ended up lighting the pyre. Naipaul’s academic performance began to falter; after a disappointing performance in his final examinations, he failed out of a postgraduate degree in English.

Late-19th cent. engraving of Oxford High Street by Henri Toussaint.

Naipaul’s darkest period ended in December 1954 when he was offered a job as a presenter for the BBC World Service’s Caribbean Voices program. He began writing in earnest, and published his first short novels The Mystic Masseur (1957) and The Suffrage of Elvira (1958). There is nothing else quite like them in modern English literature.

Naipaul depicts the Trinidad of his youth with great warmth and tolerance; his characters are vividly presented in a manner that recalls the young Charles Dickens (minus the Dickensian melodrama, sentimentality and long-windedness). But the style is cool, elegant and classical, with a balance that is worthy in places of Evelyn Waugh. Yet these two books, and the above-mentioned Miguel Street, for all their sparkle and brilliance, are mere finger exercises compared to Naipaul’s first masterpiece, A House for Mr Biswas, which he started writing in 1957 and published in 1961.

‘The Lion House’, in Chaguanas, Trinidad, where V.S. Naipaul was born.

A House for Mr Biswas is an ambitious re-imagining of Seepersad Naipaul’s life, which is elevated almost to the level of heroic myth, not by ignoring its bathetic, absurd or comical aspects, but by consistently emphasising Mr Biswas’ dignity, and the growth of his self-respect. Naipaul is careful to avoid making Mr Biswas appear ridiculous or contemptible. For all his weaknesses, he takes on a very real nobility, and the reader comes to love him.

Naipaul’s early Trinidad-based fiction makes little use of the author’s Classical background. There are hints of it here and there; but there was no real room for the Roman Empire and the Latin literary tradition in the world depicted in these stories.

Naipaul is often accused of sneering at the Third World; in truth he simply refuses to idealise or sentimentalise it, or ignore his own disgust at some of what he sees. To refer too much to Ancient Roman literature or history in these early stories would have been to risk entering a kind of conspiracy with educated readers, and joining them in looking down on these uncultured, unsophisticated characters. Naipaul refuses this condescending attitude, except in rare cases where characters seem to deserve it.

V.S. Naipaul’s maternal grandmother Sogee Capildeo Maharaj with her nine daughters and two sons (she is at the centre, in the middle row); Chauganas, Trinidad, 1935.

One of the less attractive personalities in A House for Mr Biswas is Owad Tulsi, Mr Biswas’ spoilt, pampered brother-in-law. Owad goes to England to study medicine, and is treated like a hero when he returns. He exaggerates his social standing in England, fibbing about his political importance, and claiming to be acquainted with T.S. Eliot. More unexpectedly, Owad has become a convinced Communist, and credulously reports fantasies about life in the Soviet Union to equally gullible family members:

Mr Biswas said, ‘How does he, who does not eat, work?’

Owad paid no attention. ‘In Russia, you know, Ma’ – it was his habit to address many of his sentences to her – ‘they grow cotton of different colours. Red and blue and green and white cotton.’

‘Just growing like that?’ Shama asked, making up for Mr Biswas’s irreverence.

‘Just growing like that. And you,’ Owad said, speaking to a widow who had been trying without success to grow an acre of rice at Shorthills, ‘you know the labour it is to plant rice. Bending down, up to your knees in muddy water, sun blazing, day in, day out.’

‘The backache,’ the widow said, arching her back and putting her hand where she ached. ‘You don’t have to tell me. Just planting that one acre, and I feel like going to hospital.’

‘None of that in Russia,’ Owad said. ‘No backache and bending down. In Russia, you know how they plant rice?’

They shook their heads.

‘Shoot it from an aeroplane. Not shooting bullets. Shooting rice.’

‘From an aeroplane?’ the rice-planting widow said.

‘From an aeroplane. You could plant your field in a few seconds.’

‘Take care you don’t miss,’ Mr Biswas said.[1]

Boys at Queen’s Royal College in Port of Spain, Trinidad (Naipaul’s old school) listen sceptically to a visitor from the oil industry, 1955.

Owad’s vision of a Soviet golden age here dimly recalls a familiar passage from Vergil’s fourth eclogue (lines 40–5):

non rastros patietur humus, non vinea falcem;
robustus quoque iam Tauris iuga solvet arator.
nec varios discet mentiri lana colores,
ipse sed in pratis aries iam suave rubenti
murice, iam croceo mutabit vellera luto;
sponte sua sandyx pascentis vestiet agnos.

In George Goold’s Loeb translation:

Earth will not suffer the harrow, nor the vine the pruning hook; the sturdy ploughman, too, will now loose his oxen from the yoke. No more will wool be taught to put on varied hues, but of himself the ram in the meadows will change his fleece, now to sweetly blushing purple, now to a saffron yellow; and scarlet shall clothe the grazing lambs at will.

Illustration of Vergil’s Fourth Eclogue, Samuel Palmer, 1876.

Naipaul never properly learnt how to scan Latin verse, which meant that he could only vaguely remember images or passages from ancient poetry (the purpose of metre being, after all, to ensure that words lodge in your memory in the correct order). Yet the echo here seems unmistakeable. Unquestionably Naipaul knew the poem, not only from his schooldays, but also from his studies of English poetry at Oxford: Vergil’s “Messianic Eclogue”, as it is sometimes known, is one of the most frequently imitated poems in the Christian literary tradition. But the allusion here is half-conscious; the reader who misses it loses nothing.

At this early stage of Naipaul’s literary career, historical resonances were a low priority. He was trying to make sense of his experience through transforming his memories into comedy. But after The Mystic Masseur, The Suffrage of Elvira, Miguel Street, A House for Mr Biswas and the story collection A Flag on the Island (1964–7) he had completely exhausted his early life as a source of material for this sort of fiction. Or perhaps that is the wrong way round, and he saw that parochial comedies of manners were an inadequate means of articulating his vision of the world, now that it was expanding and developing from a series of vivid but often disjointed impressions into a coherent original philosophy.

A wandering sage in Darjeeling, Abanindranath Tagore, 1920 (Victoria and Albert Museum, London, UK).

A Wandering Sage

In 1960, Naipaul began gathering material for his first travel book The Middle Passage (1962). He followed this with An Area of Darkness (1964), his provocative and memorable account of his travels through India. A little later he published The Loss of El Dorado (1969), a highly original meditation on the history of Venezuela and Trinidad, based on almost two years of often gruelling research in the British Library and London Library. As his literary vocation grew to include reporting and non-fiction, he began to pay attention to questions of empire.

Naipaul’s ancestors were from India; his grandfathers left British India to work in the sugar plantations of the crown colony of Trinidad and Tobago; Naipaul himself was educated at Queen’s Royal College in Port of Spain, studied at Oxford, then moved to London and worked for the BBC. He watched the British Empire shrink and collapse into a mere ‘Commonwealth’.

His studies in English literature could not give him much perspective on all this – not in the way he wanted. English literature, from Beowulf to Chaucer to Spenser to Shakespeare to the Restoration to the Augustans to the Romantics to the Victorians to the height of the British Empire, is the product of over a thousand years of growth, wealth, power, and ever-increasing refinement and sophistication, until the First World War; from that point onwards, no English writers other than the Catholic convert Evelyn Waugh and the American-born T.S. Eliot seemed to betray any profound insight into the sudden shrinking of English culture. Inevitably Naipaul looked to Rome for potential enlightenment.

Shepherds beside Roman ruins, Nicolaes Berchem, 1661 (Prince Willem V Gallery, The Hague, Netherlands).

Naipaul began writing The Mimic Men in August 1964, but made little progress until he took up a “Writer in Residence” fellowship at Makere University in Uganda in the autumn of 1965. The novel features comic elements, but is by no means a comedy. For the first time, ancient architecture appears in Naipaul’s work, and takes on symbolic significance, when the protagonist Ralph Singh, during his brief heyday as a successful politician, lives in a Roman-style villa:

At my secretary’s slightest summons the barber would leave his little shop and come running to my house. His joy in this house exceeded my own. I had built it a few years before, when my marriage was breaking up; it was modelled on the House of the Vettii in Pompeii, with a swimming-pool replacing the impluvium. The happy barber would run his hands through my hair and say, ‘Your hair very soft, sir. What you use? Something special?’[2]

Atrium of the House of the Vettii in Pompeii, Luigi Bazzani, 1895 (Museo di Roma, Palazzo Braschi, Rome, Italy).

Later in the book, Ralph Singh recounts a visit from a former school friend (now a socialist newspaper editor, political pamphleteer and aspiring politician):

And there in the Roman house – where I had prepared the scene for an occasion with altogether different issue – our agreement was made. The blue-and-white Hong Kong raffia chairs and table, the drinks, the illuminated swimming-pool, the Loeb edition of Martial: all this had been meant less to overawe Browne than to create the picture of a man who, whatever might be said about recent events in his private life, had achieved a certain poise. The Martial can be easily explained. I had taken up my Latin again. It was my own therapy. The acquisition in easy stages of a precise, dead language, through an easy author, was curiously soothing. It called for effort; it filled the time; it led from one day to the other.[3]

Reading Martial’s epigrams in a Roman-style villa in a small, distant, former British colony whilst sitting in chairs from Hong Kong: the symbolism seems too obvious if you spell out its significance. When we think of Pompeii, we fixate less on its sophisticated luxury and more on the fact that it was buried under volcanic ash. Did that idea ever occur to Ralph Singh? The choice of Martial is also telling. His epigrams are often fun to read; they are also the product of a civilisation that is starting to dissolve, and fixate on comfort and trivia rather than glory.

Engraving of the Via dei Sepolcri in Pompeii, Luigi Rossini, 1830.

Ralph Singh memorialises his expensive mock-Pompeiian house in the Caribbean whilst writing his memoirs in the bedroom of a cheap mock-Tudor hotel in a lower-middle-class suburb of London. When he cannot bring himself to express his self-pity in English, he always has Latin, as when he tries to come to terms with his marriage at the Willesden registry office:

Think of me sitting in the Holborn bar, drinking Guinness for strength, holding an evening paper for the ordinariness it suggested – cheatingly, the greyhound edition, it being too early for the others – and being really very frightened. So at the time I thought of myself. I stood away from the pensive figure and considered him and his recent, terrible adventure. Quantum mutatus ab illo! The words ran through my head until they were meaningless, until they became the emotion of loss and sadness and sweetness and apprehension. So nemesis came to the dandy, the creation of London, the haunter of British Council halls, art galleries and excursion trains. Quantum mutatus ab illo![4]

The bar of the Prospect of Whitby pub, Wapping, London, c.1950.

For Ralph Singh quantum mutatus ab illo seems a convenient vehicle for emotion; in Naipaul’s eyes it is no mere stray or random tag. The line comes from Book 2 of the Aeneid, in which Aeneas recounts the fall of Troy to Dido. In the passage from lines 268 to 297, Aeneas recalls his dream in which the ghost of Hector told him to flee from the city and establish a new Troy overseas. The ghost appeared dirty and badly mutilated, just as Hector’s body had been after Achilles dragged the corpse around the walls of Troy:

ei mihi, qualis erat! quantum mutatus ab illo
Hectore, qui redit exuvias indutus Achilli
vel Danaum Phrygios iaculatus puppibus ignis!

In Goold’s translation:

Ah me, what aspect was his! How changed he was from that Hector who returns after donning the spoils of Achilles or hurling on Danaan ships the Phrygian fires…

Lithograph of Hector appearing to Aeneas, Henri Fantin-Latour, 1880.

Ralph Singh has failed to live up to his splendid conception of who and what he ‘really’ is, and feels ashamed of his squalid, bathetic marriage ceremony. After this episode of self-loathing and self-pity, he ends up going back to the island of Isabella with his new wife, staying there for a decade until he is forced to leave.

There is another Vergilian reminiscence here: Ralph Singh, drinking Guinness to steel himself for an anti-climactic wedding night, sees himself simultaneously as a defeated Hector and a failed version of Aeneas. In Book 4 of the Aeneid Aeneas reluctantly abandons Dido to fulfil his destiny and found Rome: “Italiam non sponte sequor,” he tells her (361, “It is not by my wish that I make for Italy…”). Ralph Singh has done the opposite by marrying his mistress Sandra and taking her to Isabella; he reproaches himself for failing to make a name for himself in England, and is embarrassed to go back home.

Dido accosting Aeneas, Giovanni Francesco Romanelli, 1646 (Norton Simon Museum, Pasadena, CA, USA).

At least he recognises how shameful these emotions are; he tries to dignify them with Latin. His old Classics teacher Major Grant did not teach him the meaning of virtus for nothing. Or did he? In the end, virtus is just a word for Ralph Singh. But he cannot abandon his sense of himself; the last word of The Mimic Men is a simple, yet resonant, Latin word: Dixi – “I have spoken.” He has just enough Latin to use that word, but not enough to end with some grander literary reference – for example, quod scripsi scripsi (“what I have written, I have written”).[5]

Why Tell an Ancient Story?

In the 1970s, Naipaul’s oeuvre became markedly more political. He won the Booker Prize in 1971 for In A Free State, a startling collection of tales, the longest of which is set in the African Great Lakes region. He talks about his struggles to write the book in his 1987 pastoral sequence The Enigma of Arrival, which takes its title from a painting by Giorgio de Chirico:

The enigma of the arrival and the afternoon, Giorgio de Chirico, 1912 (priv. coll.).

De Chirico (1888–1978) remains best known for the ‘metaphysical pictures’ he painted between 1910 and 1920 or so: these are elegantly surreal cityscapes that often feature Classical art or Neoclassical architecture in a distinctly Mediterranean atmosphere; they have something in common with the anonymous Classical-style ‘Ideal City’ paintings that were produced in late 15th-century Italy.

Painting of an ideal city, Fra’ Carnevale, c.1480 (Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, MD, USA).

Naipaul was inspired by a reproduction of De Chirico’s painting to write a story:

My story was to be set in classical times, in the Mediterranean. My narrator would write plainly, without any attempt at period style or historical explanation of his period. He would arrive – for a reason I had yet to work out – at that classical port with the walls and gateways like cut-outs. He would walk past that muffled figure on the quayside. He would move from that silence and desolation, that blankness, to a gateway or door. He would enter there and be swallowed by the life and noise of a crowded city (I imagined something like an Indian bazaar scene). The mission he had come on – family business, study, religious initiation – would give him encounters and adventures. He would enter interiors, of houses and temples. Gradually there would come to him a feeling that he was getting nowhere; he would lose his sense of mission; he would begin to know only that he was lost. His feeling of adventure would give way to panic. He would want to escape, to get back to the quayside and his ship. But he wouldn’t know how. I imagined some religious ritual in which, led on by kindly people, he would unwittingly take part and find himself the intended victim. At the moment of crisis he would come upon a door, open it and find himself on the quayside of arrival. He has been saved; the world is as he remembered it. Only one thing is missing now. Above the cut-out walls and buildings there is no mast, no sail. The antique ship has gone. The traveller has lived out his life.[6]

Painting of an ideal city, Piero della Francesca (attrib.), 1480s (Galleria Nazionale delle Marche, Urbino, Italy).

This story turns out to be an attempt to make sense of a recurring nightmare; it is also a sort of dream version of one of the main narrative threads running through In A Free State. Naipaul was fond of the Surrealist filmmaker Luis Buñuel (1900–83); all of his great novels from A House for Mr Biswas onwards feature at least one uncannily Buñuel-like sequence; this 270-word narrative sketch is the most haunting of these. He describes how he wanted to develop it:

I didn’t think of this as a historical story, but more as a free ride of the imagination. There was to be no research. I would take pointers from Vergil perhaps for the sea and travel and the seasons, from the Gospels and Acts of the Apostles for the feel of the municipal or provincial organisation of the Roman Empire; I would get moods and the idea of ancient religion from Apuleius; Horace and Martial and Petronius would give me hints for social settings.

The idea of living in my imagination in that classical Roman world was attractive to me. A beautiful, clear, dangerous world, far removed from the setting in which I had found myself; the story, more a mood than a story, so different from the book on which I was working. A taxing book: it had been occupying me for eight or nine months and I still hadn’t completed a draft.[7]

View of an ideal city, Francesco di Giorgio Martini (attrib.), c.1495 (Gemäldegalerie, Berlin, Germany).

Here we have a rare glimpse of Naipaul’s creative imagination at work, or so it seems. Evidently he knew quite a bit about ancient literature, particularly when you consider that he only studied Latin up to A-level, and never learnt Greek. But he could never bring himself to write a full-length narrative set in the ancient world. The closest he ever came to ‘historical fiction’ was a short sequence in his 1994 volume A Way in the World, focussing on the Venezuelan revolutionary Francisco de Miranda (1750–1814).

More Modern than Flaubert

Towards the end of his life, in an essay entitled “Disparate Ways” Naipaul explained why he avoided ‘historical fiction’, as part of a wide-ranging discussion circling around Gustave Flaubert’s novel Salammbô (1862), which is set in Carthage during the First Punic War (246–241 BC), and originates in an episode related by the historian Polybius (200–118 BC).[8]

Flaubert (1821–80), one of the most original and influential of all French novelists, is celebrated for his mastery of style and the vivid realism of his novels Madame Bovary (1857) and L’Éducation sentimentale (1869). But he also had an operatic, flamboyantly Romantic side to his personality that is on full display in his (sometimes lurid) imaginative narratives that are rooted in ancient history, mediaeval fantasy, and obsessive research. He claimed to have read over two hundred books to flesh out Polybius’ narrative into Salammbô.

Salammbô, Jean-Paul Sinibaldi, 1885 (priv. coll.).

Naipaul provocatively describes Polybius as more ‘modern’ than Flaubert, and compares the depiction of Carthage in Salammbô unfavourably to the hints of the (re-founded) city’s later atmosphere that we see in Apuleius. Flaubert’s learning is impressive, but he lacks a narrative that can sustain the weight of his brilliantly imaginative fantasies. Also, he lacks the courage to judge the participants in his story. Worst of all, he misses the casual, thoughtless cruelty, and general blindness to brutality, of the ancients.

“Disparate Ways” moves on from Flaubert, Polybius and Apuleius to a consideration of Julius Caesar, some of Cicero’s letters, and the Romans’ failure to humanise, or even notice, the slaves all around them. But this is in some ways a consequence of Classical style itself:

If we have to define modern sensibility in literature, we can, I suppose, say that it is one that in its assessment of the world brings all the senses into play and does so within a frame of reason. Vergil’s big poem The Aeneid is restricted in many ways, but in its restrictions, its simple landscapes and simpler theology, its celebration of earth rites, its simple ideas of history, it seems to take us straight into the official Roman worldview. But it may be that in this poem Vergil was holding himself back; it may be that there was available to him another, more intimate way of looking and feeling – a strangely modern way – that could not be used in formal, imperial work.[9]

Unyok’d heifers, loitering homewards (illustration to Virgil), William Blake, 1821.

In his close reading of the pseudo-Vergilian Moretum (1st cent. AD), a Hellenistic-style poem describing aspects of a farmer’s working day, Naipaul is particularly interested in the fact that this ‘poor’ farmer owns a slave, who is given a degrading nickname. The poem is revealing precisely because of its un-‘Classical’ attention to particular details that are ignored in more ambitious, official literary works, and the letters and memoirs of statesmen such as Caesar and Cicero, who were always self-conscious about how they presented themselves. Yet what it reveals above all is that the ancient sensibility, whatever it was, cannot be recovered by a modern writer.

V.S. Naipaul in the 1980s.

As an artist, Naipaul had to concentrate on his contemporary surroundings because that was all he really knew. His artistic integrity and his vision of the world did not permit him to indulge in the sort of fantasy that he would have enjoyed to write: such narratives would have distracted him from focussing on the truth as he saw it. He was not a ‘magic realist’; he could not write obliquely about reality – except insofar as there is never such thing as a straightforward or direct narrative.

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 I of this essay can be read here, and Part III here.

Further Reading

When Naipaul was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2001, Vintage began reprinting his work in paperback. Though the most convenient recent editions (with newly-written forewords) were published by Picador in 2011. Collect these one by one, unless you prefer earlier editions: readable copies of the hardback first editions (published by André Deutsch and Alfred A. Knopf) can be surprisingly cheap.

If you want newer cloth-bound editions, A Bend in the River was published in the Everyman Library in 2019; the same series also includes A House for Mr Biswas (1995) and Naipaul’s collected short stories (2011). Some of Naipaul’s other books have been reprinted in the Macmillan Collector’s Library: these volumes are handsome, and affordable, but (at four by six inches) somewhat small in size, and thus to be avoided if your vision is weak.

Three of Shiva Naipaul’s books remain in print from Penguin Modern Classics. Some well-known literary figures claim to prefer his work to that of his more famous brother; though that might simply be a testament to Shiva Naipaul’s charm: almost forty years after his early death, his many friends continue to talk about him with deep affection.


1 See Part Two, Chapter Six, “The Revolution”, in A House for Mr Biswas.
2 From Part One, Chapter Three.
3 See Part Three, Chapter One.
4 Part One, Chapter Four.
5 Quod scripsi scripsi comes from St Jerome’s Latin ‘Vulgate’ translation of the Bible; see John 19:22. But this phrase is meaningful only in a predominantly Christian culture, and even then only to Catholics, for the most part. Ralph Singh, as a secularised Hindu, never moved in circles where this phrase would have held any deeper meaning.
6 From the beginning of Chapter Two, ‘The Journey’, in The Enigma of Arrival.
7 Ibid.
8 See Chapter Four, “Disparate Ways”, in A Writer’s People: Ways of Looking and Feeling (2007).
9 From ‘The Classical Half View’, a subsection of “Disparate Ways” (2007).