In the days when V. S. Naipaul could still bring himself to praise somebody else, he wrote of C. L. R. James’s Beyond a Boundary that it gave ‘a base and solidity to West Indian literary endeavour’. James’s opus, he remarked, was ‘one of the finest and most finished books to come out of the West Indies, important to England, important to the West Indies.’ Naipaul compared Beyond a Boundary to Nirad C. Chaudhuri’s Autobiography of an Unknown Indian, likewise ‘part of the cultural boomerang from the former colonies, delayed and still imperfectly understood’.
In truth, the James/Chaudhuri comparison extends well beyond their most famous books. These close contemporaries—with Nirad babu being only five years older—were both raised in lower middle-class homes they were determined to escape from. Both were autodidacts, who went, perfunctorily, to school and college while pursuing their education by their own means and under their own instruction. Both had a capacious curiosity about most of human creation—about literature, of course, but also about history, politics, art and music. Both were men of an uncompromising integrity, personal as well as intellectual. They seem to have been akin even in their faults. Thus both excelled in thick description; of books, homes, characters and events. Yet both had mistaken pretensions to theory. The first attribute resulted in superbly evocative autobiographies, the second ambition in eminently forgettable works of meta-history.
Both James and Chaudhuri had a lifelong fascination for European, especially British, civilization. This made them unpopular with their compatriots, whose hatred of British colonialism had blinded them to the glorious creativity of the British people. But the courage of James and Chaudhuri was such that they were willing to risk personal popularity in favour of intellectual honesty. Both studied European civilization closely, and took from it what they required. Both chose to spend their last years in England, though it is not without significance that while Chaudhuri settled in the prosperous town of Oxford, James settled in the poor London locality of Brixton.
Nirad Chaudhuri first visited his Mother Country at the advanced age of fifty-five. The invitation came, courtesy the British Council, after the spectacular critical success of Chaudhuri’s autobiography. The book of his travels is called A Passage to England; characteristically, there is more here about the author than his presumed subject. By contrast, James first visited England in 1932, when he was relatively young, and completely unknown. He did not publish a book about his experiences, but he did write a series of dispatches for the Port of Spain Gazette, which, some seventy years later, have now been collected in a neat little volume called Letters from London.
In his preface to this book, the West Indian critic Kenneth Ramchand writes that James was ‘at ease in England, confident about his intellectual superiority, and apparently able to live comfortably with a quota of discrepant attitudes and interests’. These ‘London Letters’ reveal a man whose ideas are in flux, whose mind is still being shaped. There is an open-minded curiosity about the world that one does not find in his (or Nirad Chaudhuri’s) mature work. But there is also a proper respect for the achievements and depth of European civilization. There are awed descriptions of a Rodin statue and of a fourteenth century clock whose maker was unknown, but which would still ‘probably be there in a thousand years, tick-ticking away’. But—and here too he is not unlike Chaudhuri—there is also a proper contempt for the degraded contemporary products of this civilization. Particularly noteworthy are James’s comments on the vulgarity of the popular British newspapers, whose technological sophistication did not preclude an aesthetic vulgarity. Commenting on their obsession with crime and sex, James asks: ‘What in the name of heaven is the use of a newspaper press being able to turn out 168, 000 copies an hour if it is only printing the rubbish that it does?’
Letters from London shows James walking and seeing, but also listening and arguing. The friends he made were British, but also other colonials. Their ‘conversations were rarely frivolous’, covering, among other topics, ‘D. H. Lawrence, Bolshevik Russia, sex, the Indian question, British Imperialism, Abysinnia, coloured students in London, the English people…’. One night he spent talking about Rabindranath Tagore with a girl whose race and nationality he sadly does not reveal. Otherwise too he displays a notable interest in matters Indian: he speaks knowledgeably about C. F. Andrews, for example, and about the Quaker-inspired Friends of India Society.
Those who know the work of both writers might argue that the James/Chaudhuri comparison breaks down when it comes to politics. One was a man of the left, the revolutionary left; the other a stalwart of the conservative, even reactionary, right. I myself believe that it was not so much politics as aspects of personality that divided the two men. Let alone Tagore, I do not believe Chaudhuri ever discussed Mozart or Clausewitz with a girl: matters of high civilization, in his view, were best left to men. By contrast, these letters show James at ease in the company, the intellectual company, of women. We also have here an appealing lack of vanity. Unlike Nirad Chaudhuri, and certainly unlike V. S. Naipaul, James does not consider himself to be in a class apart from his fellow humans.
I think this difference is not unrelated to C. L. R. James’s love of cricket, which Chaudhuri did not share. And James did not merely love cricket, he also played it to at a fairly decent level. He thus knew what it was to fail, to be bowled first ball or to be driven for four fours in an over. As a self-described ‘second-class’ cricketer, he came to admire the truly first-class ones—such as Don Bradman, Keith Miller, and his own great compatriot, Learie Constantine. As much as the library, it was the playing field that helped prepare James for life. An acknowledgement of his own vulnerability, and an admiration for the superior talents of others—these came to him chiefly through his experience and understanding of cricket.
Regrettably, cricket was not a game Nirad Chaudhuri was known to play or watch. His appreciation of British civilization was thus somewhat incomplete, since it did not embrace cricket, or indeed the other great sports invented by the British. In this respect (if in no other) this Bengali iconoclast is akin to the legion of North American critics who have made their careers writing about C. L. R. James—this despite not knowing the difference between a googly and a bumper. Some years ago, when these ‘post-colonial’ critics produced a collaborative volume on their hero, they foolishly asked the British historian E. P. Thompson to write an afterword. Thompson supplied them one paragraph where, after saluting James’s ‘deeply cultured intelligence’ and his ‘delight and curiosity in all the manifesations of life’, he pointedly remarked; ‘I’m afraid that American theorists will not understand this, but the clue to everything lies in his proper appreciation of the game of cricket’.