Friday, January 2, 2009

World Literature

My world literature project has several aspects, one of which is  a series of essays on writers whose work elucidates Goethe's concept. The first of these, on the American poet Phillis Wheatley (ca. 1753-1784), the first black woman to publish a book of poetry, appeared in the fall 2008 issue of The Yale Review.  (If you have access to a university or public library, you can read this electronically.)

My next essay in this series is on V.S. Naipaul, whose works I have read over the years, but, now that the New Year has arrived, it is time to get serious. Yesterday I began at the beginning, rereading Naipaul's first novel (though the third to be published, in 1959), Miguel Street, which is more a sequence of portraits, from the point of view of a boy living on that street in Trinidad. What astonished me was to find that everything that characterizes Naipaul's later work is laid down in Miguel Street: the mixture of races, the disillusionment, the desire to escape a small setting, the large ambitions, the outsized but ultimately absurd heroes, the men who beat women, the corruption. In the later works, there is little sentimentality in the portrayals, but in Miguel Street Naipaul still shows a certain fondness for his flawed figures.

One in particular is very touching. In Miguel Street a man arrives one day at the narrator's house asking to come into the yard and "watch your bees." The narrator's mother is suspicious, but since the man's English is so good she allows him to do so, but makes her son stay and watch him watching the bees. Here is the initial conversation between the boy and the man:

I said, "What you does do, mister?"
He got up and said, "I am a poet."
I said, "A good poet?"
He said, "The greatest in the world."
"What your name, mister?"
"B. Wordsworth."
"B for Bill?"
"Black. Black Wordsworth. White Wordsworth was my brother. We share one heart. I can watch a small flower like the morning glory and cry."

A later scene between the poet and the boy reminds me of the moment of Wilhelm Meister's encounter with the stars, mentioned in my New Year's posting. B. Wordsworth has treated the boy to the yellow mangoes that grow in his own yard. The boy eats six, staining his shirt in the process. When he returns home, his mother beats him badly for staining his shirt, and he runs away, vowing never to come back. When he arrives at B. Wordsworth's house again, he is so angry that his nose is bleeding. He and the poet go for a walk to the race course.

B. Wordsworth said, "Now, let us lie on the grass and look up at the sky, and I want you to think how far those stars are from us."
I did as he told me, and I saw what he meant. I felt like nothing, and at the same time I had never felt so big and great in all my life. I forgot all my anger and all my tears and all the blows.
When I said I was better, he began telling me the names of stars, and I particularly remembered the constellation of Orion the Hunter, though I don't really know why. I can spot Orion even today, but I have forgotten the rest.

Naipaul has been accused of condescension in his portraits of people in the Third World. It strikes me that it is less condescension than it is his bitter understanding of a milieu so narrow that people are incapable of realizing their ambitions. Imagine Wilhelm Meister in Pakistan, and he would appear even more ridiculous and absurd.

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