“the world is what it is …”: sir vidia’s hard-hearted philosophy of life (and homage to conrad)

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The opening of V.S. Naipaul’s A Bend In The River:


The world is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it.


Nazruddin, who had sold me the shop cheap, didn’t think I would have it easy when I took over. The country, like others in Africa, had its troubles after independence. The town in the interior, at the bend in the great river, had almost ceased to exist; and Nazruddin said I would have to start from the beginning.


I drove up the coast in my Peugot. That isn’t the kind of drive you can do nowadays in Africa – from the east coast right through to the centre. Too many of the places on the way have closed down or are full of blood. And even at that time, when the roads were more or less open, the drive took me over a week. (p 3)

At independence the people of our region had gone mad with anger and fear all the accumulated anger of the colonial period, and every kind of reawakened tribal fear. The people of our region had been much abused, not only by Europeans and Arabs, but also by other Africans; and at independence they had refused to be ruled by the new government in the capital. It was an instinctive uprising, without leaders or a manifesto. If the movement had been more reasoned, had been less a movement of simple rejection, the people of our region might have seen that the town at the bend in the river was theirs, the capital of any state they might set up. But  they had hated the town for the intruders who had ruled in it and from it; and they had preferred to destroy the town rather than take it over. (p 67)

Some representative quotations:  



I asked for a cup of coffee, and no cup of coffee ever came to me more quickly at the van der Weyden. It was a tiny old manwho served me. It was a tiny old man who served me. And I thought, not for the first time, that in colonial days the hotel boys had been chosen for their small size, and the ease with which they could be manhandled. That was no doubt why the region had provided so many slaves in the old days: slave peoples are physically wretched, half-men in everything except in their capacity to breed the next generation. (p 76)



We’re all going to hell, and every man knows this in his bones. We’re being killed. Nothing has any meaning. That is why everyone is so frantic. Everyone wants to make his money and run away. But where? That is what is driving people mad. They feel they’re losing the place they can run back to. I began to feel the same thing when I was a cadet in the capital. I felt I had been used. I felt I had given myself an education for nothing. I felt I had been fooled. Everything that was given to me was given to me to destroy me. I began to think I wanted to be a child again, to forget books and everything connected with books. The bush runs itself. But there is no place to go to. (p 272)


reading list

Books Read To Date

1.      Kingsley Amis, Russian Hide-and-Seek (1980)

2.      William Gibson, Pattern Recognition (2002)

3.      William Gibson, Neuromancer (1984)

4.      John O’Hara, Appointment in Samarra (1934)                 

5.      John O’Hara, Sermons and Soda-Water (1960)

6.      William Gibson, Virtual Light (1993) 

7.      William Gibson, Idoru (1996)

8.      Michael Connelly, The Overlook (2007)

9.      William Gibson, Spook Country (2007)

10.  James Purdy, Garments The Living Wear (1989)

11.  Dominique Fabre, The Waitress Was New (2008)

12.  William Gibson, Count Zero (1986)  

13.  Lydia Millet, Everyone’s Pretty (2005)   

14.  Gary Indiana, Gone Tomorrow (1995)   

15.  William Gibson, All Tomorrow’s Parties (1999)  

16.  Lydia Millet, Oh Pure and Radiant Heart (2005)

17.  Peter Abrahams, End of Story (2007)    

18.  V.S. Naipaul, Magic Seeds (2004)   

19.  Lucius Shepard, Softspoken (2007)

20.  Jeremy Blachman, Anonymous Lawyer (2006)

21.  Lucius Shepard, Green Eyes (1987)

22.  Nicholas Mosley, Look at the Dark (2006)

23.  James Meek, We Are Now Beginning Our Descent  (2008) 

The books by Lydia Millet, John O’Hara, Gary Indiana, V.S. Naipaul and James Meek all deserve to be read, while Michael Connelly and William Gibson write readable — if not re-readable– genre fiction.

James Meek’s We Are Now Beginning Our Descent and John O’Hara’s Appointment in Samara are the best works of fiction I’ve read this year. Of all the novels dealing with the post-9/11 world, Meek’s is the best one, at least in English, outracing Don DeLillo’s Falling Man right from the starting gate. While DeLillo sees post-9/11 New York as just another Cosmopolis-style locale for staging the medium-cool lives of his flattened characters, Meek’s book catches the ambiguities and compromises faced by Anglo-American liberals in the wake of Afghanistan and Iraq; his free indirect narration becomes a subtle voice of moral force, despite the reversals and concessions and shabby bargains his characters experience along the way: with this novel Meek seems like a Graham Greene whose faith is not Catholic but catholic, attuned to a broader range of political frequencies than Greene ever was, and just as knowing about the sad secret recesses of the human heart. 

In its opening pages Appointment in Samara reads as a period piece, but by the end its narrative feels as ruthless and inexorable as a Greek tragedy… The alcohol-fueled destruction of Julian English’s marriage, reputation and career is capped by one of the most powerful descriptions of suicide in modern literature.

So how come O’Hara never topped the brilliance of his first novel? His biographers typically point to O’Hara’s thirst for alcohol, quest for fame and money (motivated by his legendary social insecurity) for compromising his subsequent work. Only BUtterfield 8, along with some of his longer short stories and novellas, like “Imagine Kissing Pete,” come close to the high point he set with the story of Julian English, famously ranked by Fran Leibovitz ahead of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (she went so far as to label O’Hara “the real F. Scott Fitzgerald”). And in a uncharateristically generous mood, Ernest Hemingway remarked that “If you want to read a book by a man who knows exactly what he is writing about and has written it marvelously well, read Appointment in Samarra.

But by the end of his career O’Hara was closer in subject matter to Harold Robbins than Fitzgerald, who he so strongly resembled when he started publishing in the 1930s. As for his hundreds of short stories, it seems safe to say O’Hara remains the emblematic short fiction writer of The New Yorker, followed by the other Johns, Cheever and Updike, while only Joyce Carol Oates rivals him in terms of consistency of genuine literary merit across such a huge body of work.

Mosley’s slight Look at the Dark shows flashes of the learning and wit that shines throughout his five-volume Catastrophe Practice series, while cranky Sir Vidia’s Magic Seeds continues the journey of deracinated exile Willy Chandra, modern literature’s passive-aggressive character par excellence.

Finally, although it ultimately fails to cohere as a novel, Kingsley Amis’ Russian Hide-and-Seek is brilliant in spots. In a strange way it illustrates the interpretation made by some of Alexandre Kojève‘s commentators  that “the end of history” will be a time when the rationalized and routinized life of the masses convince the superior or “great-souled” man that criminal enterprise and political rebellion are the only undertakings worthy of him…