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

Jaspreet Singh Boparai

Part III: Becoming a Classic

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

Sir V.S. Naipaul at home.

Why Latin? Why Rome?

The literature of V.S. Naipaul exasperates academics, not only because of his refusal to compromise with intellectual fashions, but also on account of his work’s resistance to ideological interpretation, or abstract theorising. Yet nor can his narratives be straightforwardly explained. On top of that, he rarely provides explicit or unambiguous indications with respect to his influences. Even when they are spelt out, the reader is often uncertain of just how far to take them, or to what degree it might enrich the reader’s experience to recognise them. This is certainly true of Naipaul’s relationship to his English literary antecedents. What about more ancient ones?

We can point to Classical allusions throughout Naipaul’s novels right up to his final works of fiction Half A Life (2001) and The Magic Seeds (2004); but to make sense of what this author is doing it is not enough simply to identify surface-level references. Naipaul wanted his readers to read slowly, and absorb his prose as though it were poetry; his work never reveals its significance straight away. He seldom drew direct attention to his life-long fascination with Latin, Classics, and Ancient Roman culture. But once you notice it, you see it everywhere throughout his work.

The Tate Gallery transposed, Carel Willink, 1970 (priv. coll.).

At the end of the foreword to his father’s stories, Naipaul wrote:

Writers need a source of strength other than that which they find in their talent. Literary talent doesn’t exist by itself; it feeds on a society and depends for its development on the nature of that society. What is true of my father is true of other writers of the region. The writer begins with his talent, finds confidence in his talent, but then discovers that it isn’t enough, that in a society as deformed as ours, by the exercise of his talent he has set himself adrift.[1]

Naipaul’s father depicted a world in which people who were born in Trinidad and had never been to India continued to think in Hindi, even as they spoke fluent English among themselves. Seepersad Naipaul was a remarkable observer, as his stories and essays demonstrate; but he lacked a “source of strength” to enable him to transcend his circumstances, or view them with detachment.

V.S. Naipaul sought the stability, order and permanence that had eluded his father throughout his short life. Not just in terms of personal circumstances, but in language and ideas. Much of his prose has a ‘Classical’ feel that recalls the first ten books of Livy or Tacitus’ early monographs rather than the work of any British novelist or travel writer. Yet even Latinists often miss Naipaul’s ancient influences. He was too fastidious a stylist for overt literary references; readers must listen for fainter echoes, and deeper resonances.

Saint Simeon the Stylite, Carel Willink, 1939 (Gemeente Museum, The Hague, Netherlands).

Blindness in the Ruins

Naipaul’s novels Guerrillas (1975) and A Bend in the River (1979) originate in non-fiction essays he wrote during a creative dry spell in the early 1970s. Guerrillas was inspired by an article he wrote for The Sunday Times, known in its final form as “Michael X and the Black Power Killings in Trinidad”; an essay for The New York Review of Books entitled “A New King for the Congo: Mobutu and the Nihilism of Africa” led to A Bend in the River. Both pieces were revised and collected in the 1980 volume The Return of Eva Perón.[2] In transforming these narratives into fiction, Naipaul made use of his Classical knowledge to put them into historical perspective.

The former colony in which most of Guerrillas unfolds is falling into ruin, as two of the main characters see on their way to an agricultural commune that is being used as a cover for a guerrilla training camp:

Traffic thinned; and when they turned off the highway they were at last in what looked like country. But the bush had a cut-down appearance and looked derelict in the drought. Paved areas of concrete and asphalt could be seen; and sometimes there were rows of red-brick pillars, hung with dried-out vines, that suggested antique excavations: the pillars might have supported the floor of a Roman bath. It was what remained of an industrial estate, one of the failed projects of the earliest days of independence. Tax-holidays had been offered to foreign investors; many had come for the holidays and had then moved on elsewhere.[3]

Ruins of the Emperor Hadrian’s villa, Tivoli, Italy, c.AD 120.

Most of the explicit literary allusions in Guerrillas involve familiar English novels: Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847), Emily Brontë’sWuthering Heights (1847), Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa (1748) and Thomas Hardy’s The Woodlanders (1886). Naipaul’s Classical references are less rooted in specific texts: one character, a boy who wears his hear in pigtails, is described more than once as looking a little like Medusa; another has a leering, menacing laugh that repeatedly turns him into a satyr. These mythical parallels are seen mainly through the eyes of one character, a sophisticated yet philistine London publisher. None of the characters has the education or culture to see the world through an Ancient Roman literary lens; Naipaul’s aesthetic discipline generally limits him to references that mean something to the characters.

The protagonists in Guerrillas are all de facto atheists who have no spiritual lives themselves, but are surrounded by devout Protestants who allude constantly to what they know of the Bible. When a popular gangster is shot by police, the mourners in his funeral procession all carry palm fronds to symbolise his martyrdom.[4] But the main characters are blind and deaf to all of this, just as they notice nothing of the political realities around them, and cannot quite understand how they themselves might be in grave personal danger.

The forerunners of Christ, with saints and martyrs, Fra’ Angelico, 1424 (predella taken from the Fiesole Altarpiece of San Domenico, Fiesole; now in the National Gallery, London, UK).

One of the main characters in Guerrillas dismisses the very idea of revolutionary guerrillas, and has unwittingly helped them set up a training camp. He is observant and perceptive; his tragedy is that he never makes anything of what he sees, until it is too late. At the beginning of Part One, Chapter Two, Naipaul allows himself this sly Classical reference:

The sky went smoky and the evening chill fell on the hills. The hidden city roared and hummed, with ten thousand radios playing the reggae, as they so often seemed to do.

Naipaul is alerting the sensitive reader’s attention to the presence of guerrillas hiding in the hills. “Ten thousand radios” alludes vaguely to the end of Book 8 of the Iliad, and the vivid image of a thousand fires burning in the night, each surrounded by fifty Greek soldiers, outside the city walls of Troy. But the people in the story who ought to be paying closest attention never connect the dots.

At the end of Book 8 of the Iliad, Homer compares the sight of the Greek soldiers’ campfires at night to the stars shining around the moon.

A Bend in the River

Naipaul’s travels through Congo (then called Zaire) in the 1970s enabled him finally to see the world depicted in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899). Conrad (1857–1924) was the first modern author whose work Naipaul knew; yet he had an uneasy relationship with much of Conrad’s oeuvre.[5] In “A New King for the Congo”, Naipaul describes the ruins he noticed throughout the country that seemed like the remains of ancient civilisations, but were only a few decades old: Congo had been independent since 1960, and most of these ruins had only been neglected or abandoned for a decade and a half, after the Belgian colonists left the country.

At Kinshasa railway station, Naipaul saw a defaced monument that been erected in 1948 to commemorate fifty years of the Congo railway; at the top, in granite letters, were the Latin words “APERIRE TERRAM GENTIBUS”: “To Open the Land to the Nations.” This gave him the germ of the idea that developed into A Bend in the River.

Ruins of President Mobutu Sese Seko’s palace (Kawele, Democratic Republic of Congo).

In A Bend in the River, which takes place in an unnamed, newly-independent African country, the main character, Salim, arrives in an unfamiliar town to take over a shop, and wonders at a ruined monument that is decorated by a motto that had deep resonance for Naipaul:

And there were the ruins. Miscerique probat populos et foedera jungi. These Latin words, whose meaning I didn’t know, were all that remained of a monument outside the dock gates. […] I was told that the monument had been put up only a few years before, almost at the end of the colonial time, to mark sixty years of the steamer service from the capital.[6]

Later, a Belgian Catholic priest explains the Latin to Salim:

‘He approves of the mingling of the peoples and their bonds of union’: that was what the words meant, and again they were very old words, from the days of ancient Rome. The very first Roman hero, travelling to Italy to found his city, lands on the coast of Africa. The local queen falls in love with him, and it seems that the journey to Italy might be called off. But then the watching gods take a hand; and one of them says that the great Roman god might not approve of a settlement in Africa, of a mingling of peoples there, of treaties of union between Africans and Romans. That was how the word occurred in the old Latin poem. In the motto, though, three words were altered to reverse the meaning. According to the motto, the words carved in granite outside our dock gates, a settlement in Africa raises no doubts: the great Roman god approves of the mingling of peoples and the making of treaties in Africa. Miscerique probat populos et foedera jungi.

I was staggered. Twisting two-thousand-year-old words to celebrate sixty years of the steamer service from the capital! Rome was Rome. What was this place? To carve the words on a monument was surely to invite the destruction of the town. Wasn’t there some little anxiety, as in the original line in the poem?[7]

Ruins of Dungu Castle, built by a Belgian colonist, and abandoned in the 1960s (outside Dungu, Democratic Republic of Congo.)

The town has another Latin motto – the motto of the local French lycée: “SEMPER ALIQUID NOVI” – “There’s always something new.” The priest explains that this comes from a Roman writer who said that there is always something new out of Africa. Semper aliquid novi is a commonplace from the Adagia (1500), a collection of ancient proverbs compiled by Erasmus (1466–1536); this is a modern adaptation of a passing comment by Pliny the Elder.[8]

Roman-style bridge over the Dungu River (Dungu, Democratic Republic of Congo).

Salim is disturbed by the vainglory inherent in these pompous-seeming Latin expressions, but understands how they help Europeans like this priest situate themselves in the African bush, and view themselves as a part of history. Naipaul winks at the reader here by giving the priest the name ‘Fr Huismans’. This is an obvious nod to the French writer Joris-Karl Huysmans (1848–1907), an eccentric bachelor who was obsessed by the decadence of France after the Franco-Prussian War, and fascinated by Satanism, but ended up becoming a devout Catholic.

Huysmans was a brilliant art critic, though he is most celebrated today for his 1884 novel À Rebours (usually translated into English as Against Nature), which features an enervated, isolated, impotent, neurasthenic aristocrat who withdraws from society to devote his life to solitary pleasures. He is an atheist, but fixates on the minutiae of obscure theological disputes from Late Antiquity, and takes great delight in reading later Latin literature, particularly where the language has become artificial and highly rhetorical, and bears little relationship to reality. Most of his time is spent neurotically collecting luxuries, reading obscure ancient texts, or ruminating about pleasure.

The yellow scale, František Kupka, 1907 (Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, TX, USA). This self-portrait is sometimes mistaken for a depiction of the poet Charles Baudelaire (1821–67) – one of Huysmans’ main influences when he wrote À Rebours.

Naipaul’s Fr Huismans is a self-consciously ‘reforming’ priest who does not wear clerical dress, or obviously seem to be a holy man, and spends most of his free time in the bush building up a collection of “primitive art” consisting mainly of carvings by local tribesmen. He passes for an expert anthropologist, but really he simply loves to hear himself talk, and voice ‘enlightened’ views; he ends up being murdered by members of a local tribe, who mutilate his body and cut off his head.

Fr Huisman represents Naipaul’s vision of the Catholic Church in the wake of the Second Vatican Council (1962–5), and the Church’s disastrous attempts at ‘modernisation’. One of the most catastrophic ‘reforms’ led to the near-total disappearance of Latin from the Church’s liturgy.

Sunday in an unremarkable Catholic parish, late 1950s.

On 7 March 1965, Pope Paul VI celebrated the first-ever Catholic Mass in the Italian language, in accordance with liturgical ‘reforms’ that were hastily, sloppily assembled by Archbishop Bugnini (1912–82). A plaque commemorating this first Mass in the otherwise-unremarkable Chiesa di Ognissanti in Rome has repeatedly been vandalised over the years. That day, the pope openly spoke of “sacrificing” the Church’s principal sacred language:

This Sunday marks a memorable date in the spiritual history of the Church, because the spoken vernacular officially enters liturgical worship. The Church has considered this measure right and proper… in order to render its prayer intelligible and make it understood. The welfare of the people demands this… to make possible the active participation of the faithful in the public worship of the Church. The Church has sacrificed her own language, Latin – a sacred, sober, beautiful language, highly expressive and elegant. She has sacrificed the traditions of centuries and above all she sacrifices the unity of language among the various peoples, in homage to this greater universality, in order to reach all.[9]

Of course the end result of this “reform” was neither “unity” nor “active participation”, but mass apostasy, and the near-total self-destruction of the institutional Church. The “sacrifice” of Latin turned out to be foolish and suicidal.

A typically ugly, empty modern Catholic church.

In A Bend in the River, Naipaul makes clear just what a failure Fr Huismans’ life and career are; despite being the principal of a school, he does nothing to pass on the Catholic faith, the Latin language, or any of his knowledge of local customs, languages or religion; when his headless body is recovered, nobody even knows how to bury him properly. His art collection is pillaged after his death; nobody cares because nobody else around him really values what he has collected. He is quickly forgotten.

The Pastoral Homecoming

After A Bend in the River, Naipaul turned increasingly to travel-writing and memoir as literary forms. His 1987 book The Enigma of Arrival is the only successful exercise in pastoral of modern times; there is nothing quite like it in English literature. In the 1970s he had settled in rural Wiltshire, not far from Salisbury; in many ways The Enigma of Arrival is a love-letter to the landscape that surrounded him as he created some of his greatest work, including this book. The starting-point seems to be Vergil’s Georgics. But the resonances are so deep as to be difficult to describe to anybody who does not know both works intimately.

The gleaning, Samuel Palmer, 1833 (Tate Britain, London).

The Enigma of Arrival is the composition of a writer who has read and re-read a selection of ancient works, and repeated lines to himself where they have stayed with him, and meditated on these works during his long walks through the landscape whilst trying to determine why he is so driven to write. Not merely to write about the subjects he is thinking of setting down on paper, but why he is driven to write anything at all. Far from merely living out a quixotic dream of his father’s, Naipaul saw that he had lived a life that nobody else had lived in the 20th century; he saw it as his duty to bear witness to the fact. But why?

The English language and its literature was too close to him; on the other hand, the experience of English writers, even those with whom he felt the closest kinship, seemed alien to his own. Roman authors, on the other hand, wrote in a language that he struggled to read; that struggle gave him the distance to enable a detached point of view. The Classical writers he admired most were, like him, provincials who had to travel some distance to reach the capital of the Empire, and never quite felt at home in that place – only in its language. Naipaul’s real models were not Joseph Conrad, or Thomas Hardy, or Gustave Flaubert, or Henry James, but Vergil and Apuleius.

Vergil suspended in a basket, Giovanni Buonconsiglio, early 16th cent. (Wawel Royal Castle, Kraków, Poland). This picture illustrates one of the mediaeval legends which claimed Vergil to be a magician as well as a poet.

Two Approaches to The Golden Ass

Compare Naipaul’s relationship with Latin literature to that of Sir Salman Rushdie, whose 1981 novel Midnight’s Children is justly celebrated as one of the most engrossing and memorable English novels of the second half of the 20th century. In his best work, Rushdie’s exuberance is infectious; the reader shares his joy in creation as he revisits the events of his life in fantastic form. Rushdie is a storyteller in the tradition that he first experienced as a child in Bombay: his work tends to combine self-mythologising autobiography with fantasy. Because his novels are consciously part of the ‘Magic Realist’ tradition, the dividing lines between satire, allegory and pure fantasy are not always clear.

We should avoid discussing the controversies involved with Rushdie’s 1988 novel The Satanic Verses, except to note that in this volume Rushdie seems to claim affinities with Apuleius, as well as Ovid and Lucretius (to a lesser degree). In Part Five, Chapter One of The Satanic Verses, Rushdie allows the reader to see just how deeply he has engaged with The Golden Ass, and Latin literature in general.

An enigmatic fresco from the Temple of Isis at Pompeii (now in the National Archaeological Museum of Naples, Italy).

In this lengthy, sometimes rambling chapter, an autodidact ex-schoolmaster from Bangladesh, Muhammad Sufyan, refers in an indirectly-reported stream-of-consciousness monologue to “Lucius Apuleius of Madaura [sic], Moroccan [sic] priest, AD 120–180 approx.”, displaying in passing a considerable (if undigested) mass of superficial knowledge. Of course, Apuleius was from Madauros, not Madaura, which is in Algeria, not Morocco; it is not immediately clear whether these are errors on the part of the author, or comical mistakes from the mouth of a garrulous old pedant.

Later in the chapter, Sufyan learnedly discusses, in his magniloquent broken English, “questions of mutability of the essence of self” with reference to Lucretius and Ovid, and shows off by quoting a line from De rerum natura in Latin, talking around the subject until the reader almost begins to suspect that that author might be the one who is bluffing, not the character.

There is no content to Sufyan’s monologue. Might the author be playing the same game that we have all played when we writing essays or book reports on works of literature that we never quite got round to finishing?  On the other hand, the author has not voiced these thoughts in his own voice, thus allowing the claim: “it’s not my mistake, it’s the character’s.

This is not unlike Rushdie’s artistic strategy in The Satanic Verses of putting all the most potentially divisive material in dream sequences, to enable maximum ‘plausible deniability’. Rushdie wants you to notice his polymathic erudition, even though, his Classical knowledge is in truth superficial; he does not have enough Latin to read (for example) Julius Caesar or Cornelius Nepos without the aid of a translation. When you are aware of this, Rushdie’s Latin quotation from Lucretius seems like a bit of a fudge, to say the least.

The witch Circe, Louis Chalon, 1888 (ED Gallery, Piacenza, Italy).

Naipaul, by contrast, does the opposite: A Bend in the River, for example, engages profoundly with The Golden Ass in ways that are neither obvious nor immediately visible. You have to immerse yourself in the texts to see how Apuleian Naipaul’s witch Zabeth is, and how Apuleian the entire theme of magic and witchcraft turns out to be – if indeed you notice it in the first place. Ultimately, Naipaul does not particularly care whether or not you think he has read any Latin Classics, with or without the aid of translations. Behind his restraint and artistic discipline is a solid foundation of confidence, and intellectual courage.

Unlike Rushdie, Naipaul was not a genius. Rushdie’s genius lasted long enough to enable him to produce a single masterpiece, Midnight’s Children; he has sought to recapture his own magic ever since, without success. Naipaul had no such gift or facile brilliance; all he had were his intelligence, his sensitivity, his sense of perception, and above all his indomitable will to create art. His oeuvre is so easy to admire because its virtues are all so relentlessly hard-fought. Nothing came easy for him; he faked nothing, and cut no corners. This is what authentic Roman virtus looks like.

The stonebreakers, Gustave Courbet, 1849 (destroyed during World War Two).

A Monument of the Classical Tradition

Great writers must be virtuous. Not virtuous in the manner that earns pats on the head from schoolteachers, or virtuous in a way that necessarily sets an example of praiseworthy conduct; rather, great writers must exemplify virtues in their works that orient their readers and audiences towards fixed, eternal, universal truths.

With a few exceptions (notably the 1963 novel Mr Stone and the Knights Companion) Naipaul’s books all have the permanent value of true classics. The truths he reveals and depicts are absolute, not merely partial or contingent. You might not always agree with him, but at the very least you can see the truth he sees as he sees it, and trust in his integrity.

Nadira, Lady Naipaul, with her husband.

Naipaul was not a Classicist in academic terms. He could never have taught Latin to any advanced level. Yet his Classical studies were foundational for his achievements. He may have achieved higher marks at school in Spanish and French; but the Latin language unlocked the mysteries of a thousand years of English literature for him, and Roman history helped him situate himself in civilisation, and identify structures, patterns and recurring situations that resonate throughout time.

When he had exhausted his personal experience as source material, Mommsen, Fustel de Coulanges and the Loeb Classical Library helped Naipaul find subjects worthy of his increasing ambitions. Roman ruins and Latin inscriptions fired his imagination. Vergil and Apuleius inspired him more consistently than even Hardy or Conrad could. Finally, at the end of his life, he gratefully repaid his debt of honour to the Latin Classics in A Writer’s People.

The apotheosis of Homer, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, 1827 (Musée du Louvre, Paris, France).

The Classical tradition in England had no worthier exemplar in 20th-century literature than V.S. Naipaul; the least we can do as Classicists is read his work delightedly with the attention it deserves, and hope that he has inspired writers of the future to achieve greatness as he did.

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 II here.

Further Reading

See the recommendations in Parts I and II of this essay for guidance on what to read, and where to start with Naipaul. Let it be repeated that you ought to read everything Naipaul wrote, in chronological order if possible, from his early publications onwards – bearing in mind that Naipaul’s prose is not like a television series that can be ‘binge-watched’.

Scholarly and academic studies on Naipaul that may be enthusiastically recommended turn out to be exceedingly difficult to find, although perhaps such things do in fact exist. Please let us know if they do.


1 See Naipaul’s foreword to Seepersad Naipaul’s The Adventures of Gurudeva (1976/1995; reprinted separately in Naipaul’s Literary Occasions, 2003).
2 The Return of Eva Perón is out of print; these essays are now most easily found in the 2002 anthology of Naipaul’s non-fiction The Writer and the World: Essays.
3 From Part One, Chapter One.
4 Chapter Twelve; these palm fronds are referred to as “Arrows of Peace” by a local agitator; the biblical reference is to the New Testament: see the Apocalypse of John 7:9–17.
5 Naipaul’s essay “Conrad’s Darkness” (first published in The New York Review of Books, 17 Oct. 1974) describes this ambivalence in typically unsparing yet generous terms.
6 From Part One, Chapter Two of A Bend in the River.
7 Part One, Chapter Four.
8 For an interesting history of this commonplace, see Italo Ronca’s “Ex Africa semper aliquid novi: the ever-surprising vicissitudes of a pre-Aristotelian proverb”, Latomus 55 (1994) 570–93.
9 This translation is taken from Roberto de Mattei’s impressively wide-ranging The Second Vatican Council (an unwritten story), a 2012 English translation of Il Concilio Vaticano II: una storia mai scritta (2010). This is perhaps the best introduction available in English to the Second Vatican Council, and the events leading up to the liturgical ‘reforms’ of Pope Paul VI. For the full story of this appalling act of vandalism (of the Church’s ancient liturgy, not of the plaque in Ognissanti, which turns out not inappropriately to be one of the ugliest, cheapest-looking churches in Rome), see Yves Chiron’s Archbishop Bugnini: Reformer of the Liturgy (2018) and Paul VI: The Divided Pope (2022). On the consequences generally of Pope Paul VI’s reforms, Pope Benedict XVI has written extensively; see Milestones: Memoirs 1927–1977 (published in English in 1998 when he was still Joseph, Cardinal Ratzinger). More recent works have been rather more blunt; especially recommended is The Springtime that Never Came: Bishop Athanasius Schneider in Conversation with Paweł Lisicki (trans. Justyna Krukowoska, 2021).