Thursday, May 28, 2015

Mr Stone and the Knights Companion by V. S. Naipaul

'It is a way, you see, of helping the poor old people.'

Back in 2001 a film based on V. S. Naipaul's first novel, The Mystic Masseur, was released.  I've never seen the film, but its appearance spurred me to read the novel. The book made little impression on me, and fourteen years later I remember just about nothing about it.

During those fourteen years, however, I have heard and read things here and there about Naipaul; for example, a Caribbean woman in my New York office was reading A House for Mr. Biswas, and we spoke about it briefly.  Everything I heard about Naipaul always sounded sort of intriguing (the admiration of Somerset Maugham, whose work I really enjoy, for example), so he has never fallen totally off my radar. When the Des Moines Public Library's Central Branch had a tremendous book sale, thousands of books going for mere pennies (my wife bought like 50 volumes of poetry), one of the items I picked up was a hardcover copy of Naipaul's 1963 novel, Mr Stone and the Knights Companion.  This week I read it.  

Mr Stone, a bachelor, is in his 60s; in just a few years he will retire from his position at the London headquarters of the large firm Excal.  "Excal" is meant to remind us of "Excalibur."  Naipaul doesn't get into what goods or services Excal sells; I guess it is supposed to be a sort of "AnyCorp UK."   According to wikipedia, Excal is based on the Cement and Concrete Association, where Naipaul worked for a brief period in an editorial capacity. At the start of the novel Stone is "head librarian" at Excal.  His life has always been orderly and predictable, but major changes are on the way, and the novel covers this surprising period of two or three years at the tail end of his life.

Stone marries a widow, in a way that feels almost accidental, which upends much of his routine.  Naipaul's portrait of their meeting at a drab party and their loveless, passionless marriage is amusing and sad.  Stone begins spending more time at the office, so as to avoid his wife and home.  He has no friends or nearby relatives to whom to unburden himself; his most meaningful relationships are with the cat who lives next door (for years he has seen it as an enemy, for the way it digs up his garden) and a tree behind his house, which Stone studies through the bathroom window everyday while shaving.

Stone, now familiar with the sadness of elderly mens' lives ("inactivity...cruelty...the confinement of family relationships..."), concocts a scheme to help retired Excal employees; a program, run out of Excal's Welfare Department, to encourage healthy Excal retirees (to be called Knights Companion) to visit sedentary former Excal employees.  This will give the spry oldsters something to do, getting them out of the house and providing them the "comradeship of the office" which they miss, as well as brighten the lives of the shut-ins, and alert the authorities if these decrepit pensioners are in need of medical attention or are suffering from neglect or abuse.  Excal's leadership embraces the idea, seeing it as a public relations coup, and Stone gets a new position and a 50% raise.

The Knights Companion program is a success, but Stone derives no satisfaction from it.  In fact, he resents his co-workers, whom he believes are "riding his back" to success (I guess we Americans would say, "riding his coattails.")  Because the final product does not 100% match his vision of the scheme, hatched in his study at home, by the end of the novel Stone is telling himself that "Nothing that was pure ought to be exposed....All action, all creation was a betrayal of feeling and truth."  Time spent in his office becomes as burdensome as time spent at home.

The final scene takes place during a transit strike.  Stone has to walk (part of the way) home, which I have to admit reminded me of September 11, 2001, when my wife and I had to walk home from our midtown Manhattan offices.    

I quite liked Mr Stone and the Knights Companion.  The prose is clear and straightforward; like the people at the Times Literary Supplement and the Manchester Guardian say on the back of the book, Naipaul's writing is exact and controlled.  The theme of the book is the sadness of old age and the general horribleness of life, but it is not melodramatic or romantic--the book is low key, understated, lightened by amusing character studies.  These character studies, however amusing, make clear that just about everybody is a fraud and/or a crank, and that human relationships, which in theory are what make life worth living, are all destructive, exploitative, and/or demeaning.  There are no decent, life-affirming, relationships in the book, either between sexual partners, family members, or friends. The neighbors even destroy their cat because their kids are bored with it!

Here's a specimen.  Stone's right hand man in setting up and running the Knights Companion program is a young self-important dandy who wears fashionable but ill-fitting clothes named Bill Whymper:  
He [Stone] found himself studying Whymper's face and mannerisms, and he wondered how he had come to supress his initial distaste, how he had managed to feel affection for Whymper, to enjoy his obscene laugh and obscene jokes (Whymper on the types of fart, Whymper on the types of female walk), his puns ('equal pay for equal shirk'), the aphorisms ('soup is the best substitute for food I know') which were probably not his own, the violence of his socialist-fascist political views.  He felt he had been made a fool of by Whymper and had succumbed to the man's professional charm. 
Whymper and Stone are briefly friendly, eating lunch together and so forth.  Whymper comes to visit Stone and his wife at home; Whymper and Mrs. Stone get on better with each other than Stone does with either.  Whymper sickens Stone with his racist jokes, descriptions of his sexual escapades, and, finally, by seducing Stone's niece.  Whymper has made Stone complicit in his ugliness, and then betrayed him.

This is a pretty depressing book, though it is well-crafted and doesn't feel heavy or long. Apparently Mr Stone and the Knights Companion is considered a minor, perhaps uncharacteristic, component of Naipaul's body of work, his only book set in England and primarily about white characters.  It doesn't even have its own wikipedia page, and I had trouble finding decent images of its various covers.  I'll make an effort to read one of Naipaul's more famous novels in the future.

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