Major writers don’t always write major books. VS Naipaul (1932–2018) was by any measure a major writer (a Booker Prize for In a Free State in 1971 and a Nobel Prize in 2001 where the citation singled out his 1987 The Enigma of Arrival for special commendation). Naipaul’s admirers are divided in their affections between the short comic novels of the young man, not long out of Trinidad, with their forgiving humanism, and the longer, darker, often crotchety, later works. But between them sits the odd, unclassifiable Mr Stone and the Knights Companion (1963).
Mr Stone is, in an obvious sense, a transitional book. Before it had come A House for Mr Biswas (1961), the tragicomic culmination where he used up – as he would later put it – the last of his Caribbean ‘material’. After it came the series of political novels (The Mimic Men, Guerrillas) and the bitter travelogues of India, Africa and the Middle East. But between them sits this odd creature, set entirely in England. This was not even the immigrants’ England of Sam Selvon and George Lamming, his West Indian contemporaries in literary London, but an England of white white-collar workers and with not a black or brown face in sight (or more precisely, as we shall see, in focus).
The novel has been compared to Evelyn Waugh’s comedy of Californian manners, The Loved One (1948), and indeed Waugh’s destructive farces were a key influence on Naipaul’s early comedies. But to the extent that it resembles anything by a contemporary, Mr Stone brings to mind the novels that Muriel Spark (1918–2006) was then writing, set in a London full of office drones and shysters, just as short, the prose similarly whittled down to its caustic essentials. Though he was known in later life for dismissive remarks about women writers, Naipaul knew and admired Spark’s work, giving Memento Mori (1959), her dark comedy of ageing and death in Kensington, a warm welcome in the New Statesman where he was a regular reviewer of new fiction. ‘There is a Waugh-like brilliance to this novel,’ he wrote, in words that could just as well apply to Mr Stone, ‘in the easy economical narrative, the continuous invention producing a series of surprises, the well-cut dialogue, the controlled tone. […] Nothing is forced, least of all the humour.’
Mr Stone begins the book in his early 60s, a librarian in a firm called ‘Excal’ and a bachelor, with not much more to look forward to than his periodic clashes with the unfriendly neighbourhood cat and the annual invitation to the Tomlinsons’ Christmas party. But somewhat to his own surprise, he decides impulsively to get married to a voluble widow he meets at the party, a Mrs Springer, a decision that brings him, as one expects when it happens, both happiness of a kind and regret. As retirement comes steadily closer – mortality now continually on his mind – he hatches up what seems, but swiftly turns out not to be, a hare-brained scheme: retired Excal employees will be assembled into bands of ‘Knights Companion’, tasked with visiting fellow Excal pensioners with little gifts from the company. That is, as the creative writing cliché has it, the situation; it isn’t quite the story.
The story resists summary. It is easier to list the things it’s about. Like Spark (and for that matter, Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene), Naipaul is interested in hopelessness, in those who risk dying unredeemed. Unlike those Catholic contemporaries, he is secular through and through: his characters will die unredeemed (religion is almost entirely absent from his characters’ lives), but they will be allowed moments of hope along the road to oblivion, and the prospect of leaving behind something lasting.
Mr Stone reckons his life in numbers: his salary, his years with the company, the years since his mother’s death. For Mr Stone,
Life was something to be moved through. Experiences were not to be enjoyed at the actual moment; pleasure in them came only when they had been, as it were, docketed and put away in the file of the past, when they had become part of his “life”, his “experience”, his career. It was only then that they acquired colour, just as colour came truly to Nature only in a coloured snapshot or a painting, which annihilated colourless, distorting space.
Naipaul’s great gift for English prose survives the loss of Caribbean colour and dialect: how precisely he evokes the language of Mr Stone’s thought (contrast the omniscient narrator’s use of ‘life’ and ‘experience’ with Mr Stone’s), and how easily he moves from the deliberately flat ‘something to be moved through’ to the Gray’s Elegy lyricism of ‘colourless, distorting space’.
In later years, Naipaul would, in his usual self-loathing way, castigate himself for his ‘fraudulence’. In1958, he had announced that he had ‘a superficial knowledge of the country [i.e. England], and in order to write fiction it is necessary to know so much.’ By 1994, he was ruing his ‘suppression of the narrator, the observer who was an essential part of the story. To write a book as though you were this third-person omniscient narrator who didn’t identify himself was in a way to be fraudulent to the material, which was obtained by me, a colonial, living precariously in London in a blank and anxious time, observing these elderly Edwardian people trying to postpone death.’
But that narrator does allow himself to show every now and then. When Mr Stone first goes to visit Mrs Springer – shortly to become Mrs Stone – in her Earl’s Court hotel room, he walks past ‘a meeting of the British National Party […], a man shouting himself hoarse from the back of a van. Behind neon lights and streaming glass windows the new-style coffee houses were packed; and the streets were full of young people in art-student dress and foreigners of every colour.’ And again, when he reaches her hotel, he finds that a ‘small typewritten “Europeans Only” card below the bell’, which ‘proclaimed it a refuge of respectability and calm.’ Whose perceptions are these, and whose voice? Naipaul manages to do something very delicate here, letting us notice what Mr Stone only barely registers – the British National Party meeting – and allowing that perception to transform, to darken, how we see how he thinks of the ‘Europeans Only’ card. Not ‘here be racists’, but here be ‘respectability and calm’. Irony, as Cleanth Brooks famously defined it, is ‘the obvious warping of a statement by the context’. Naipaul’s irony is not obvious, until one notices it, and then it is everywhere and warps everything.
The irony pervades the rest of the book too, turning a novel of insular Londoners into a more ambitious comment on England and the empire. Naipaul lets us know at one point that Mrs Springer possesses a ‘framed sepia photograph of a dead tiger on whose chest lay the highly polished boot of an English cavalry officer, moustached, sitting bolt upright in a heavy wooden armchair […] with three sorrowful, top-heavily turbanned Indians, beaters or bearers or whatever they were, behind him.’ It is clearly Mr Stone’s voice we hear in that ‘beaters or bearers or whatever’, but the whole image brings with it the possibility of other points of view, not least those of the ‘sorrowful-top-heavily turbanned Indians’ who never asked to be in a framed sepia photograph in an Earls Court hotel room
Mr Stone’s quiet xenophobia appears in other places. He made, we are told, an unhappy trip to Paris, where ‘his pocket was playfully picked by an Algerian, who warned him to be more careful in future’. Later in the novel, he is walking around London with a risible younger colleague – the Dickensianly named Whymper – who is driven to fury by ‘the sight of black men on the London streets’, ‘loudly counting those he saw’ on his lunchtime walks. Mr Stone finds it merely funny.
The little moments add up. On the surface, Mr Stone seems Naipaul’s least post-colonial work: but there’s a sense in which it is also the most post-colonial thing he ever wrote. It is the portrait of a Britain in the middle of a process of decolonisation whose significance doesn’t seem, at the time, to have struck anyone but those directly involved in it. In the insignificance to the plot of these noticings, their sheer incidentality in the lives of his characters, Naipaul gets something both deep and right. Somehow, it doesn’t come as much of a surprise to find the book ending with the words ‘Srinagar, 1962’, an acknowledgement of the hotel in the middle of the Kashmir lake in which he wrote it over three months in the middle of his long journey through India, the journey that provided him with the material for his travelogue An Area of Darkness. The suppression, or more precisely the concealment, of the immigrant voice is what allows Mr Stone and the Knights Companion to be the book it is: a book about but not of England.