Various covers for V. S. Naipaul’s In a Free State
Ethics today means not being at home in one’s house. —Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia
There appears to have been some contestation in the published form In a Free State was to assume. Subtitled A Novel with Two Supporting Narratives, V. S. Naipaul’s 1971 masterpiece features the eponymous novel, two stories which he calls “supporting narratives,” and the bookends of a prologue and an epilogue, taken from his own journal during his travels. It is, therefore, more accurately, a novel with four supporting narratives. I mentioned “contestation” because Naipaul and his editor at Andre Deutsch, the formidable Diana Athill, amicably disagreed over the final form: it was Athill’s opinion that the (short) novel bearing the title In a Free State should be published as a stand-alone book. Though Naipaul refused the suggestion at the time, he came round to her point of view nearly four decades later, in 2008, when he issued only the novel, shorn of all the “supporting narratives,” with a short introduction explaining his decision. I am of the view that Naipaul’s earlier decision was the correct one: it had resulted in a formally original and dazzling book, over and above being a remarkable, clear-eyed, truthful and brutal meditation on exile and displacement. Because form seems to have historically been considered—and is still seen as—a white guy’s thing, and because Naipaul never strayed from the realist mode, In a Free State was never acknowledged for the ways it pushed the boundaries. It seems too late in the day, especially after historians such as Hayden White, to talk of form and content separately, but there’s no way to think about a disease without naming it first. Contiguity is a form of continuity, too, and brings with it new sets of meaning. Realism has always troubled its practitioners: In what sense does a novel represent the world in a lifelike manner? Surely by artifice? What is real, or realistic, about the extreme selection process that is plot, the progression of a life’s events that make it on to the page? If we could do away with all the elements that are normally considered crucial to coherence in the realist novel, such as plot, character, and continuity, could we still have something that could answer to the name of novel? If all the connective tissue were taken out, could a narrative still cohere through, say, metaphorical underpinnings, or meaning? Could discrete parts make a sum without the simple method of scalar addition?