Literary Occasions by V S Naipaul

Enigmas of arrival and disappointment
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The Independent Culture

I have always moved by intuition alone. I have no system, literary or political." Many of the pieces in this collection (an anthology of essays published between 1965 and 2001) find VS Naipaul arguing that his fiction is shorn of bias and dogma. Accident, luck, a great deal of labour and imaginative power have taken him from one book to the next, each publication being a fresh discovery of the self and the world.

Naipaul is critical of writers who work within predetermined frames. There is something flawed and unexercised about Conrad's creative imagination, he argues: "Conrad's subjects and all his conclusions, seemed to have existed in his head when he settled down to write... We almost begin with the truth - portable truths, as it were, that can sometimes be rendered as aphorisms - and work through to their demonstration." As to many contemporary writers, Naipaul denounces experimentation and linguistic play as existing for their own sake, or for private glamour, the writer no longer awakening the reader to "the sense of true wonder".

Writers are often untrustworthy when it comes to explaining the nature of their craft and calling, and Naipaul is no exception. He presents himself as an innocent explorer, each of his novels being heuristic voyages. The truth is that you can identify a Naipaul novel from its opening sentences. He is one of the most recognisable voices in modern fiction. His themes are consistent and obsessive: in his essay on Conrad he confesses them as "the new politics, the curious reliance of men on institutions they were yet working to undermine, the simplicity of beliefs and the hideous simplicity of actions, the corruption of causes, half-made societies that seemed doomed to remain half-made".

Wearing the mantle of Victorian high seriousness, in the latter part of his career he has travelled the continents identifying human failure. It is, of course, his great achievement, this ceaseless exposure of decline and decay. Such a monumental effort took its toll in terms of sickness of heart and mind, charted with astonishing honesty in his Enigma of Arrival. Part of the pain, so palpable in his later works, is the loss of the comic vision which produced his great novel, A House for Mr Biswas.

"I began as a comic writer and still consider myself one," he wrote in the foreword to the 1983 edition of Biswas. "In middle age now I have no higher literary ambition than to write a piece of comedy that might complement or match this early book." The wastelands he encountered on his travels out of the 1960s darkened his outlook and gave a terrible bleakness to his prose, but the painful yearning for humour remained.

The sudden revelation of private pain is what saves Naipaul's essays from any accusation that they are exercises in high-mindedness and melancholia. Late one evening, in Cyprus, the radio unexpectedly begins to broadcast passages from Biswas. "I was in tears, swamped by the emotions I had tried to shield myself from for 20 years." Naipaul's sorrow was in the recollection of rare years of happiness he experienced while writing Biswas, a novel inspired by his father's life.

It is to his father that Naipaul keeps returning, in essay after essay, and his memories are deeply moving. He writes of a book his father had given him as a keepsake, The School of Poetry, when he was five. The poignancy lies in the details of recollection: "It had been marked down by the shop from 48 cents to 24 cents. It was his gift to his son of something noble, something connected to the word."

Even more touching is the story of the pen Naipaul writes with. In 1953 the BBC paid him to read his father's short story, "Ramdas and the Cow", on the "Caribbean Voices" programme. Apart from being profoundly moved by this tribute to his father, he got four guineas. "I bought the Parker pen which I still have and with which I am writing this foreword" (to a new edition to his father's stories 20 years later). Naipaul's genius lies in the coexistence of simple details like these with his grand railings against a wrecked world.

David Dabydeen's novel 'A Harlot's Progress' is published by Vintage