In the most literal sense of the phrase, I absolutely do judge books by their covers, and won’t read one if its design and condition don’t meet my high aesthetic standards. At the same time, books can be too good-looking. A case in point is my mint Penguin copy (from 1969) of V. S. Naipaul’s A House for Mr Biswas (1961). I just can’t bring myself to read it: the cover is too beautiful; the pages too clean. Breaking its spine now would break my heart. So until I get a less precious copy of it, Naipaul’s most famous novel will have to wait, I’m afraid, and you and I both will have to be satisfied with an earlier work, Miguel Street (1959), which I do own in a dispensable edition.
I use the word ‘work’ rather than ‘novel’ advisedly. Miguel Street is not a novel – not really, though its seventeen sections each have the same narrator and feature a recurring cast of characters. ‘Linked short stories’ is closer (and is how Wikipedia classifies it), but even that overdramatises what are essentially just small slices of life. Major events happen – so in the first, a tailor nicknamed ‘Bogart’ disappears without trace, then suddenly reappears again months later – but they do not register as major. What sticks instead – for reader and narrator – are the people themselves:
It was something of a mystery why he was called Bogart; but I suspect that it was Hat who gave him the name. I don’t know if you remember the year the film Casablanca was made. That was the year when Bogart’s fame spread like fire through Port of Spain and hundreds of young men began adopting the hard-boiled Bogartian attitude.
Every character gets a myth like this – all just as hazy – giving them just enough background to feel embodied, yet not so much that they feel burdened by it. It’s a brilliant balancing act of characterisation, and for all their violence and drunkenness, I loved being in these people’s company.
And in this place, too. Though the stories never really stray beyond this one, fictional, Trinidadian street, nor do they feel cut off from the world, either. There’s a war on during most of them (Casablanca dates that first story to 1942), and the odd glimpse of American soldiers means it’s hard to forget the continent lurking just off-camera. Particularly in a story like ‘Until the Soldiers Came’, in which the actions of amateur painter Edward, brother of Hat (see how these stories all connect?), pass beyond Bogart’s harmless Hollywood mimicry:
He began wearing clothes in the American style, he began chewing gum, and he tried to talk with an American accent. […] To hear Edward talk, you felt that America was a gigantic country inhabited by giants. They lived in enormous houses and they drove in the biggest cars of the world.
The estrangement is complete when Edward marries a “white-skinned woman.”
She looked very pale and perpetually unwell. She moved as though every step cost her effort. Edward made a great fuss about her and never introduced us.
The women of the street lost no time passing judgement.
There is a fine line, in other words, between American and American’t, and Naipaul navigates it with great humour. That final sentence, which is its own paragraph, is a typical Naipaulian payoff: short, pithy and marvellously matter-of-fact.
This is a word that could be applied to Naipaul’s style as a whole. He is very matter-of-fact. Which makes the prose hard to talk about, I find. The only way to really do it justice is through quotation, so here is another passage from ‘Until the Soldiers Came’:
His favourite subject was a brown hand clasping a black one. And when Edward painted a brown hand, it was a brown hand. No nonsense about light and shades. And the sea was a blue sea, and the mountains were green.
I quote this because I feel it’s what Naipaul’s doing, too: painting in big, bold, primary colours. And because it shows off his love of ‘and’. Never has a writer got so much mileage out of this word. It perfectly suits the setting: this place of no knock-on effects; where one thing happens, and then something else happens, with no causal relationship between them; where the clock resets after each story. It’s delightfully lulling.
Yet the book isn’t entirely devoid of plot. One person does change – our narrator. We don’t learn much about this character to begin with – though the language immediately pegs him for a young boy – and for the most part, he is just a window through which we view the likes of Hat and Bogart. As the book goes on, however, our narrator’s reflection clarifies, and his interactions with others become more meaningful. One particularly strong influence on him is B. Wordsworth – B for “Black. Black Wordsworth” – a poet who writes at the rate of “one line a month”: “But I make sure it is a good line.” Under B.’s tutelage, our narrator gets his first glimpse of beauty:
We went for long walks together. We went to the Botanical Gardens and the Rock Gardens. We climbed Chancellor Hill in the late afternoon and watched the darkness fall on Port of Spain, and watched the lights go on in the city and on the ships in the harbour. [….] The world became a most exciting place.
And from here on in, his course is set. He starts to read, he starts to write, he starts, worryingly, to turn into V. S. Naipaul, who would later hold his birthplace in great contempt. Thankfully, Naipaul has the good sense to end his book before his avatar gets too bitter, so that the spell of Miguel Street is still just about intact as the curtain falls. Another page would have spoiled it, I suspect.
Miguel Street is published by Picador and is available here.