Not only but also Naipaul

In V. S. Naipaul’s novel Half a Life, a boy is waging a battle, mostly silent, with his father, through stories he writes and leaves lying around strategically at home. One day the boy, Willie, is home from school for lunch and sees his exercise book still untouched.

Willie thought in his head, in English, “He is not only a fraud, but a coward.” The sentence didn’t sound right; there was a break in the logic somewhere. So he did it over. “Not only is he a fraud, but he is also a coward.” The inversion in the beginning of the sentence worried him, and the “but” seemed odd, and the “also.” And then, on the way back to the Canadian mission school, the grammatical fussiness of his composition class took over. He tried out other versions of the sentence in his head, and he found when he got to the school that he had forgotten his father and the occasion.

This passage, even apart from cultural, familial, and psychological complications, is interesting from the point of view of grammar and style. I’m curious about what ‘didn’t sound right’ to Willie in the first formulation of the line. What ‘break in the logic’ does he feel?

Cover of 'Half a Life' is black, with a patterned red band at the bottom - maybe part of a rose - and white and pale green text. At the top: "National bestseller", then the title and subtitle: "A novel". Halfway down there is a pair of spectacles, in luminous green. Then the author's name, and a quote from the NYT: "A masterpiece ... and a potent distillation of the author's work to date." To the right, under the title, is a gold circle saying "The New Novel by the Winner of the Novel Prize in Literature".Is it the lack of ‘also’, which is often, though not always, included in the formula? (See my post on not only . . . but (also) for discussion.) Does the unnecessary comma detract from the emotional force of the thought? Or is it something deeper, a dissatisfaction with the idiom’s sly redirection of a negative?

And why, recasting the expression, does the inversion worry Willie? How does the ‘but’ seem odd, and the ‘also’? Are they odd in combination, or would either alone sound odd too? Do the particular nouns fraud and coward contribute to the problem? Or does it arise because English is not his first language?

These questions are pretty much moot, since we don’t know exactly what Willie, or Naipaul, thinks about not only . . . but (also) beyond those few lines. But with an author’s magnifying glass suddenly held above the idiom, it’s fun to speculate. It’s also amusing that Willie delves so deeply into the mechanics of syntax, he completely forgets his domestic angst.

13 Responses to Not only but also Naipaul

  1. Yes, do you also feel that people feel the need to change, perhaps to “hype up” traditional expressions, so that “both this and that” is not strong enough and it has to be added to with “both this but also that”?

  2. What a striking passage. If I were teaching a writing class, I’d bring it in and ask students to respond.

    I think the absence of “also” is the likely issue in the first sentence. And the “but” seems unnecessary. Simpler: He’s a fraud — and a coward too. But that’d be far too informal in a land of “grammatical fussiness.”

    • Stan Carey says:

      The ‘also’ could be the issue there, and yet the same word seems odd to Willie in the inverted version. As to necessity, the entire not only . . . but (also) structure is never absolutely required, so the necessity is of degree rather than kind, a matter of expressive intuition.

      It would be interesting to learn what a whole class feels about it!

  3. Roger says:

    It’s an example of a writer, Naipaul, fretting about how his budding writer in the story would likewise fret; it’s “a writer’s line” as Dustin Hoffman once complained when he came across one in the scripted lines required of him, except that Naipaul’s writer’s fretting is justified
    on the grounds of realism.
    About half of all of Naipaul’s books are non-fiction.
    Fiction alone didn’t satisfy. It seems to me he fretted lots.

    • Stan Carey says:

      Yes, it’s definitely a ‘writer’s line’, and I agree that it’s justified here. The book traces, among other things, Willie’s development as an author and his critical reflection on that development; the not only passage is a rare example of self-conscious mechanics within that arc.

      I don’t know much about Naipaul’s life or personality beyond the few threads I’ve read in reviews and essays (like James Wood’s) and in Diana Athill’s publishing memoir Stet.

  4. mazblast says:

    I spent a little time “fretting” over this one, and the least worrisome for me is, “He isn’t just a fraud; he’s a coward, too.” However, that may be too simple for most professional writers, many of whom seem to want our reading of their material to be as difficult as it was for them to write it.

    Of Willie’s two options, I prefer the second, with the “but” removed. “Not only is he a fraud, he is also a coward”, perhaps with the comma replaced by a semi-colon.

    • Stan Carey says:

      I think the two elements of the construction are too closely correlated to warrant a semicolon. The version you favour also changes several other of the constituent parts – ‘is not’ to ‘isn’t’, ‘only’ to ‘just’, [0] to ‘too’ – so it’s hard to compare them directly. But of course it’s all very subjective.

  5. Catbar UK says:

    For me, I’d write: “He is not only a fraud but also a coward.” as I feel the added ‘also’ and removing the comma makes it flow better.

  6. Guy says:

    Which is the more important attribute?
    “He is a fraud; a cowardly fraud.”
    “He is a fraud. Worse than that, he is a coward.”
    Perhaps the hesitation comes from giving them equal weight.

    And the semantics aren’t strong enough to express what Niapaul is feeling. The insults would perhaps satisfy more if they were more colloquial:
    “Not only is Papa a phony, but a chicken.” (or equivalent)

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