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Book Review January 22, 2003
Naipaul ’s Farewell: Homage to Sredni Vashtar
By John Dolan Browse author Email
Page 3 of 3
Half A Life wouldn't really be worth reviewing if it weren't the work of this very great writer in his old age. But that said, it's not a bad book. Especially for an old man like Naipaul: he's 70, and not all that many good novels are written by men of 70.

Naipaul shows his age in this novel bythe sudden cuts he uses to skip scenes too hard for the old man to fill in. The hero marries in a blip between chapters, and moves to Africa in one quick transitional sentence. It's weak; and Sredni Vashtar should get no mercy when he himself gets old and weak. So I call you on it, Naipaul: you wimped out on the hero's marriage, his trip to Africa, all of it. You got tired, old man, and you spliced it like Snoopy on a bad day.

But you did some other bits pretty well, old man.

Like the sex scenes. Half A Life is Naipaul's only book to talk about sex any more than absolutely necessary. He was always such a prude-and now, at 70, he writes pages of bed-commentary. And he does it well, too, telling the narrator's encounters with a girl suspiciously like the Pakistani groupie Naipaul himself ditched his terminally ill wife for a few years ago. It's brave, telling that story so transparently on himself; so good for you, old God. Go down fucking; (after all, nobody needs to tell YOU to go down fighting.)

But though the sex scenes are, as they say, "largely of biographical interest," one part of Half A Life stands on its merits: the story of Willie's schooldays in India. In those scenes, Naipaul makes comedy out of his own attempts to absorb literary English in Trinidad-in nowhere. Here's Willie telling how he encountered the Romantics:

"I didn't understand the BA course....I didn't understand The Mayor of Casterbridge....Shakespeare was better, but I didn't know what to make of Shelley and Keats and Wordsworth. When I read those poets I wanted to say, 'But this is just a pack of lies. No one feels like this.'"

Cautious reviewers will take this verdict as ironic, the product of the persona Willie rather than the demiurge Naipaul; but I take it as the master's final word on the subject and embrace it. In fact, it makes me happy to see Naipaul, at the end of his career, so savagely reject Wordsworth, the worst and most evil of all the Tory prats-in-verse. "But this is just a pack of lies" -- it is! It always was! And how your surviving BBC sponsors must have winced when you said so, Naipaul.

And that's the tonal memory of this novel left in me: a kind of final lightness and good cheer from a man who never had or asked any mercy for anyone on the planet. A slow stroll to the cemetery, with a stop to empty the complaining bladder upon the tomb of William Wordsworth. God bless you not, Sredni Vashtar. Piss on'em all and show the undertaker those godly fangs one last time.

But he's also an old man, hitting 70. Those two facts had me flinching as I began Half A Life, because age is good writing's bitter enemy. I feared my old hero would shame himself, and wasn't sure what I would say in this review if he did. Show mercy -- to Naipaul the Merciless? That would be cruel. Naipaul was always as cruel as a mongoose; he deserved to be savaged if the book turned out to be bad.

But it wasn't. It's not his best, not even close. But it's easy, light and funny, a little tinklin' of the old ivories by a tired old man who can still wake you up

I read a survey on writing and age once. The authors claimed to have proved that most recognized "great writing" is produced by men and women in their early 30s. It felt true to me and still does. For every writer who works best in old age -- Burroughs, Celine, Stevens -- there are a thousand who peak young and spend a bitter old age begging the Muse to come home to Grandpa. (It's worse for scientists: they peak at 26.)

And Naipaul, still offering novels at 70.

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