Friday, February 7, 2014

The Reading List: "A House for Mr. Biswas"

A House for Mr. Biswas
by V.S. Naipaul, 1961

This novel is the life story of Mr. Biswas, like his author a Trinidadian of East Indian descent. We get the entire story, from his inauspicious birth and unlucky childhood to his premature death. Like all biography, therefore, A House for Mr. Biswas has a sad ending, but Naipaul softens the blow by letting us know from the first sentence that Mr. Biswas is going to die in the end, and reminding us periodically thereafter.

Mr. Biswas’ life unfolds in a series of more or less comic episodes: a slipshod education, an unintentional but somehow unavoidable marriage into a semi-dreadful family of fading backwoods gentility, a futile stretch of years as a failing village merchant, a period of debilitating depression, some lucky breaks that allow him to apply his talents to a job in the big city of Port-of-Spain, and, in the end, a handful of good years.

Mr. Biswas is intelligent and has intellectual leanings, but he is also deeply ignorant and barely able to figure sums. He reads philosophy, but only the same few books over and over. He can interpret the social rituals and interactions of the people around him with the finesse of an anthropologist, but can’t make himself behave around other people in a way that will smooth his own path through life. He sees how blind other people are to their self-destructive behavior, but that doesn’t stop him from indulging in his own. He exhibits sudden sporadic bravery, and also a craven reluctance to rock the boat in any way. He is loveable, until he does something horrifying; he is fairly unlikeable, until he shows remarkable kindness. He is a reprehensible father, but probably the one you would choose from among his peer group. He is, in short, an amazingly human fictional character. He reminds me of you! And me!

Location, Location, Location

Throughout his saga, Mr. Biswas is continually in search of a house. Everyplace he lives is more or less dreadful, through some combination of destitution, hostile neighbors, poor construction, isolation, crowding, and exposure to the savage Byzantine politics of his wife’s enormous family. It is a measure of his success in life and as a human being that his final house – and don’t worry, I’m not telling you anything you won’t learn on the first few pages – is considerably less dreadful than the other places that he has lived. His unwise purchase of that last house, at far too high a price, is a heroic achievement on the level of Odysseus making it home to Ithaca, or of Mr. Bloom making it home to Molly.

A House for Mr. Biswas is about a life lived in poverty. There is a lot of literature about life in poverty, and most of it focuses on the poverty. That’s cool, but Naipul’s emphasis is solidly on the life. This is, I think, a very conscious choice. Throughout the book, there are sly references to more stereotypical literatures of poverty. A friend of Mr. Biswas publishes despairing existential fables about, say, a poor man selling the winning lottery ticket to buy bread for his child. Mr. Biswas himself, a capable enough hack writer, is forever beginning but never able to finish an autobiographical story in which he would escape into a world of clich├ęd romance. Towards the end, the master narrative of classical Marxism is lampooned with gusto after it is ostentatiously taken up by a pompous brother-in-law. I don’t think that Naipul is trying to suggest that poverty is benign, or unimportant; just that the lives of poor people are fully experienced lives, shaped by but not reducible to their economic circumstances.

The book is also, as George Eliot would say, a “study of provincial life.” Mr. Biswas is very conscious that his existence is limited to a very finite set of opportunities available on the island of Trinidad, and that many of the options available to people in the books he reads don’t really apply to him. On the other hand, his Trinidad of the 1930s is a seemingly vast space with villages and towns scattering a landscape that seems vast to the people who live within it. One of the key moments of Mr. Biswas’ life comes when, in a gesture that somehow combines both his adventurous spirit and his tendency to fall into any comfortable groove, he decides – or lets it be decided for him – that he will take a bus north, to the city, to Port-of-Spain. Here, as during some of the time that he was a village shopkeeper, he will be estranged from his family by distance, and go for weeks and months without seeing them. And yet, Trinidad is (I eventually realized) only about the size of the county I grew up in, say 50 miles by 30. He is never more than a few hours by bus or bike from everyone he knows. But since this represents the entire world – Mr. Biswas believes, correctly, that he will never be able to leave Trinidad – it become global in scope, and the perceived social distances between places expands accordingly.

If you are still reading this far down, you are probably Mrs.5000

Human behavior is often shaped into absurd patterns by its institutional containers, and Naipul’s observations often have a remarkable echo of another 1961 novel, Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. Heller writes about men in a military encampment during a war, which for purposes of portraying the absurdity of human life is kind of shooting fish in a barrel. Naipul is no less painfully acute, or hilarious, in dissecting Trinidadian family dynamics. Late in the book, Mr. Biswas’ in-laws purchase a paradisiacal rural estate and run it briskly into the ground through a spectacular display of ineptitude, indecision, avarice, internecine jealously, failure to follow through, failure to cut losses, snobbery, inflexibility, and an array of preposterous attempts to get rich quick. It is painfully funny, and, oddly, more than a little reminiscent with the turf wars fought in Hellers’ bomber squadron. 1961 was, apparently, a good year for the absurdity of human nature.

Listen: I loved this book. It starts slow and looks like it’s going to be long, but like Mr. Biswas’ life, you end up wishing his story was a little longer. There’s not much in the book that is happens in a particularly dignified manner, but somehow Naipul creates dignity for his character (giving him the honorific "Mr." throughout instead of using his first name, even when he's still five years old, is one tool for this). Set largely in various forms of squalor and banality, the net effect of Mr. Biswas' story is kind of, well, beautiful. “Wow,” I said, putting the book down. “That was really beautiful.” I don’t know if I’ve ever said that about a book before.

This is the antepenultimate book of the Reading List.


Linda said...

I enjoyed the moment you mistook me for Mrs. 5000 :)

I'm going to see if I can find Mr. Biswas on audio.

I finally got through Anna Karenina because of you... thanks. I started War and Peace but only scratched the surface before I couldn't take it anymore. I'll try again someday.

Michael5000 said...

It takes a long time for War and Peace to get out of the drawing rooms.

Thanks for reading my, um, not-short post!

gl. said...

"This is the antepenultimate book of the Reading List."


just slipped that in, did you?!