They were essentially contemporaries, born within two years of one another, on islands a few hundred miles apart in the Caribbean Sea. Each carved out a prolific writing career that spanned more than half a century, and each was rewarded with the Nobel Prize for a profoundly path-breaking and influential body of work. When they died—again within two years of each other, one on his native island and the other in far-off London—an era in literary history effectively came to an end.
Derek Walcott and V. S. Naipaul: the names have long dominated, even defined the literature of the Anglophone Caribbean. Walcott, from St. Lucia, who died in 2017, was the great poet; Naipaul, Trinidadian by birth, who died last year, was the great novelist. Both men went from modest beginnings to eventual acclaim as among the finest living exponents in the English language of their particular forms. Coming of age in the middle of the twentieth century, in the embers of the British Empire, they brought the Caribbean to the attention of the wider world as no one had done before.
Naipaul’s early books, from the keenly observed stories of urban life in Miguel Street (1959) to the epic sweep accorded an ordinary man’s existence in the magisterial novel A House for Mr. Biswas (1961), shaped my understanding of my native Trinidad so indelibly that I can’t imagine myself without having read them. And Walcott’s poems, from his first incantatory verses in In a Green Night (1962) to his own island epic, Omeros (1990), conjured up a new language that sanctified the Caribbean as never before—and gave me permission to see it and its inhabitants as no less than worthy.
Perhaps no two writers from the same place, however, would stake themselves out so differently in their conception and delineation of that region as Walcott and Naipaul did. The two authors came to represent opposing poles of Caribbean literature. Walcott, the lyrical poet for whom “it is always morning,” hymned the Caribbean with extravagant metaphors, considering it a paradisiacal “green world,” a “new Aegean” full of wonder and possibility where a singular, hybrid culture was being fashioned from the historical fragments of Africa, Europe and Asia.
Derek Walcott and V. S. Naipaul: the names have long dominated, even defined the literature of the Anglophone Caribbean.
Naipaul’s vision of the Antillean archipelago could hardly be more different, more seemingly pessimistic. Writing in lucid, stringently spare prose, he saw the region after almost five centuries of genocide, slavery and poverty as “half-made,” an “unimportant, uncreative” place full of second-rate “mimic men” who, hemmed in by the limitations of their brutalized islands, could only stew impotently, undone by the impersonal, implacable forces of history.
Everywhere in the islands Naipaul found cause for consternation, while Walcott saw reason for exultation. A man of mixed race, part African and part European in his ethnic heritage, Walcott viewed himself as a sort of synecdoche of the Caribbean (“I’m nobody, or I’m a nation,” as the autobiographical narrator of the long lyric “The Schooner Flight” declares), at home with the idea of the region as a miscege- nated, polyglot Babel. Indeed, it’s the repeated collision of disparate world cultures in the matrix of the Caribbean that created something new—that alchemic process known as creolization— that is at the heart of Walcott’s celebration of the West Indies.
Naipaul would have no truck with that kind of idea. Born into a “disintegrating” Hindu family a few generations removed from their migration out of India as bonded agricultural laborers, Naipaul saw deracination and loss, taint and debasement as the sad inheritance of the imperial enterprise in the Caribbean. While Walcott believed a new world without a history in the traditional sense was an opportunity to build everything from nothing (“The sea is history,” he said), Naipaul was prepared to dismiss that world. As he infamously declared in his 1962 Caribbean travelogue The Middle Passage:
“History is built around achievement and creation; and nothing was created in the West Indies.”
Even the Caribbean’s natural beauty was a point of division for both men. Time and again, Walcott drew from the pulchritude of the islands; the quality of the light, the lushness of the vegetation, the colors of the sea were endless sources of ecstasy and contemplation. For Naipaul, who from an early age dreamed of escaping to temperate climes, the Caribbean was too hot, its flora easily reduced to mere “bush.” And the encircling sea, so vital to Walcott, held nothing for Naipaul—“Not my element,” to quote Ralph Singh, the Naipaul stand-in from the 1967 novel The Mimic Men.
Perhaps no two writers from the same place, however, would stake themselves out so differently
At first, there was little hint of the rivalry to come. But as the two writers grew in stature and their paths began to cross, the perception of them as mutual antagonists increased. It wasn’t until Walcott’s 1987 review of Naipaul’s autobiographical novel The Enigma of Arrival that their long-simmering feud boiled over. Here, Walcott laid out the case against his nemesis, for having repeatedly disparaged the place of his birth and its people, and for his supposed racism, Naipaul’s “nasty little sneers” at people of African descent.
Two decades passed before Naipaul responded. In an essay that began by praising Walcott’s initial achievements, Naipaul summed up the now-celebrated poet as “a man whose talent had been all but strangled by his colonial setting.” Walcott’s response was swift. In 2008, as the main guest of the Calabash literary festival in Jamaica, Walcott read “The Mongoose,” a verse-attack that begins with the couplet “I have been bitten, I must avoid infection/Or else I’ll be as dead as Naipaul’s fiction,” and becomes increasingly savage. The novelist did not reply—he and a former friend, the author Paul Theroux, were engaged in an even more famous literary feud—and the dispute came to an abrupt, acrimonious end.
. . .
Yet to see Walcott and Naipaul as Walcott vs. Naipaul is to obscure much about them. The authors had a lot in common, more than either would probably have dared admit. They were born between the two world wars—Walcott in 1930, Naipaul in 1932—when the colonies of the Caribbean had begun to agitate for greater autonomy, leading to full independence beginning in the 1960s. On a devoutly Roman Catholic island, Walcott’s family was Methodist, making them feel, as Walcott once put it, “beleaguered.” In Trinidad, where most people were Christian and of African descent, the ethnically Indian Naipauls were strict Hindus; like Walcott, Naipaul saw his family as occupying a place apart in society.
Both Naipaul and Walcott belonged to families that cherished the written word. Their fathers, who died young, were writers, inspiring their sons. Naipaul’s father was a journal- ist and short-story writer who read Dickens to his young son. Walcott’s father, a teacher, wrote verse and staged amateur plays. After Walcott’s father died, his mother, also a school- teacher, recited Shakespeare to her boy. In both cases, the idea of writing as a vocation, as a sacred, priestly duty, was strong.
Even the Caribbean’s natural beauty was a point of division for both men.
Dickens and Shakespeare were only a small part of the “sound colonial education” (to quote “The Schooner Flight” again) that both young men received. It was a classical, rigorous, British education; its lacunae, the history and society and culture of the islands where it was being disseminated, would become Walcott’s and Naipaul’s subjects and concerns as writers later on.
Through the awarding of coveted government scholarships, this education was also meant to give disadvantaged colonial subjects the chance for advancement. Naipaul duly won a scholarship that took him to Oxford University to study English and, crucially, away from little Trinidad. Walcott, who self-published his first collection of poems at 19, didn’t win a scholarship and remained in the Caribbean, where he attended University College (later the University of the West Indies) in Jamaica, then taught in various islands before settling in Trinidad.
It would be easy to put a marker here and judge the two men: Walcott, who embraced the Caribbean and stayed; Naipaul, who rejected it and left. Easy, and only partly true. As much as Naipaul might have spurned the place of his birth, he couldn’t escape it. He spent his first eighteen years in Trinidad. The experience greatly shaped him, providing a unique lens through which to analyze the modern world. These youthful years enriched his first novels and stories, so full of humor and pathos. It was also a time he would revisit a lot in later years, though with a harsher eye.
As much as Naipaul sought to slough off any semblance of a Caribbean identity, to remake himself as a sui generis genius with no country, community, or cause, with fealty only to the written word (“I am the sum of my books,” he once declared), his Trinidadian roots were often apparent. Whenever Naipaul made one of his frequently controversial statements—about Africa, Hindu women, the so-called third world—the outrage it occasioned obscured its usually mischievous delivery, which Trinidadians would instantly recognize as island picong, something said partly in jest, meant to provoke.
It would be easy to put a marker here and judge the two men: Walcott, who embraced the Caribbean and stayed; Naipaul, who rejected it and left.
Walcott would have understood this picong, though he wouldn’t have forgiven it. He would have comprehended, too, the complex impulses behind Naipaul’s long, hard journey from provincial subject to cosmopolitan, and with which such behavior is bound up. Walcott, who taught at Boston University from 1981 to 2007, never wavered in his love for the Caribbean, but he did acknowledge that there was another truth about the region, something that Naipaul had identified early and fled from. The needling humor in the pun on Naipaul’s name in this couplet from Walcott’s “The Spoiler’s Return” can’t obscure that truth: “I see these islands and I feel to bawl / ‘Area of darkness’ with V. S. Nightfall.”
Even the subject of Walcott’s proud Antillean identity was no simple matter. No enlightened cause had brought Britain and Africa together in the islands the poet called home, yet he could no more deny one than embrace the other. As a man “poisoned with the blood of both,” to reject the former was to spurn the English language that he (like Naipaul) loved; to embrace the latter was to adopt a sentimentality that he (also like Naipaul) saw as fraudulent. He would, instead, assume another mantle: Caribbean. It was as much a conscious decision to adopt an identity as Naipaul’s decision to repudiate one and create another.
. . .
Naipaul’s authorized biography, The World Is What It Is, was published in 2008. Its author, Patrick French, laid out, in often horrifying detail, Naipaul’s emotional and physical abuse of his wife and mistress. The following year, Walcott withdrew his bid to become professor of poetry at Oxford after a decades-old sexual harassment allegation by a Harvard student resurfaced; it was one of several such allegations that had swirled around him for a long time, including accusations by female students at Boston University. It seems, then, that the two authors also shared disturbing traits.
Twenty years later, in a time when the worth of art by men who have behaved abominably is being debated as never before, the deaths of Walcott and Naipaul have brought their errant actions back into focus. What is to be their legacy? Do we condemn the writers and reject their books? Or do we separate the art from the artists, engaging with the texts while being aware of the less-than-perfect individuals who wrote them?
I can no more dismiss Walcott and Naipaul’s work than I can accept that work divorced from the context of the men who wrote it—as is the case with any artist, from Ezra Pound and his embrace of fascism, to Richard Wagner and his anti-Semitism.
Undeniably difficult characters, Walcott and Naipaul created resonant, enduring visions of the Caribbean out of a deeply felt personal experience. That these towering achievements were created by flawed men will forever complicate their legacies. It will also complicate the experience of those of us, from the Caribbean and beyond, who will—who must—continue to read them.
Jonathan Ali is a film curator and writer. He curates the Third Horizon film festival, in Miami and has curated the Trinidad & Tobago film festival and the East End film festival. He is a contributing writer and film critic for Caribbean Beat Magazine.