Sir Vidiadhar - better known as the writer V S Naipaul - has a curious conversational habit of repeating himself, usually twice, but often several times, as if, in the act of saying certain words, he has grown fond of them and is reluctant to let them go. You become accustomed to the quirk (which some of his friends call 'Naipaul's bis') surprisingly rapidly. After a while, you find yourself unconscionably disappointed when his sentences don't end in a triad of repeated phrases.
The telephone was not answered. It rang and rang, and eventually Naipaul got up to go and deal with it himself. The coffee, when it came, was also his doing. There weren't any servants, but Naipaul rather skilfully communicated the sense that there ought to have been: a single minion at least, to scurry about respectfully and sort out the domestic stuff. 'What an intrusion the telephone is]' he said on his return. 'Just coming into one's life like that] I mean -' his eyes bulged slightly, imagining the outrage - 'one might be sleeping]'
Normally, when he is writing, Naipaul lives in a house in Wiltshire, where his wife, Patricia, whom he met as a student at Oxford University, is on hand to deal with domestic and administrative affairs. He was in London to collect the David Cohen Prize for British Literature, which comes with a cheque for pounds 30,000 and a further pounds 10,000 from the Arts Council to be used by the recipient for commissioning new writing. It is given in recognition of 'a lifetime's achievement by a living British writer'.
Naipaul, who is often cited as the great living British writer (V S Pritchett is probably his only feasible competition), has been producing novels and travel writing for 40 years - more or less since he arrived at Oxford in 1951 on a government scholarship from Trinidad. He is 60 now, and he says he regards this latest accolade as a reward for endurance, as much as anything. 'It is an acknowledgment of one's literary . . . well, devotion. It is for sticking to the last, in a way. One has been very touched, very touched. One has been very touched.'
The tone of regal condescension here is by no means untypical. Even in gratitude, Naipaul is never less than princely. He is notorious for responding to dinner invitations with a list of detailed instructions about the sort of food that he will require. (He is a vegetarian and a picky one to boot.) He has even been known to add, by way of a warning to his hosts, that 'one is rather serious about wine'.
Plaudits, it seems, cannot dizzy him. While he happily accepted a knighthood when offered one three years ago, he has declined to use the title - his reasons having apparently less to do with democratic principles than with a horror of vulgarity. ('I do not,' he says disdainfully, 'regard the knighthood as a social accomplishment.') Touched as he is about the Cohen Prize, he reserves the right to be pretty sniffy about literary prize-giving in general.
'Writing is a voluntary activity,' he says. 'And to talk about writers being poor is slightly absurd. It's like saying, 'Monks don't marry - oh, we must do something for monks.' I think you can't have it both ways. Writers write and they know it's a difficult life. The idea of becoming a writer in order to hit the jackpot is awful. And to become a writer in order to be given a grant or to get a prize - I think it's dreadful. Dreadful. Dreadful.'
This irritation with the notion of writers receiving hand-outs from avuncular institutions, betokens Naipaul's wider distrust of complacency or dependence in any form.
During our conversation, the subject of violent crime in Britain arose. Naipaul said: 'I see that several generations of free milk and orange juice have led to an army of thugs. Haven't they been created? These people who clearly have no talents, who . . . riot. They're very strong and big, aren't they? They've not been deprived. They've been well fed and yet they haven't earned anything. They seem to think we should do something for them . . . I think people should earn their own regard.'
The idea of individual ambition - of the moral imperative to go out and make something of oneself - lies at the heart of all Naipaul's writing and has, in a sense, been the central theme of his life. Departure from Trinidad at the age of 18 was his decisive step to 'earning his own regard' and that first, simple journey away from home, into independent adventure, reappears in various guises throughout his books. It is Naipaul's ur-narrative partly because it is itself about narrative - about the effort to impose a meaning on existence by giving it sequence and shape.
Naipaul comes from a family of brahmins and he grew up in a tightly knit, highly insular community of orthodox Hindus. Indians first came to Trinidad in the last century, when thousands of indentured labourers - Naipaul's grandfather among them - were needed to fill the jobs on British sugar plantations vacated by freed slaves. With them they brought all the rituals, the food, the music - even the architecture - of the Indian villages they had left behind. The world of Naipaul's childhood was a curious reconstruction of the mother country - a little India, almost untouched by Caribbean influence.
'Born an unbeliever', Naipaul found his family's elaborate Hindu rituals embarrassing and anachronistic. He was later to develop a certain amount of nostalgia for them, but as an adolescent, he found the pressures of clan and custom and community stultifying. Trinidad frustrated him. He hated its chaos, its inertia, its squalor. And he was wracked by a sense of real life going on elsewhere - of being on the moldy, colonial hemline of things.
This offers some explanation of the fastidiousness he developed in later life. He is a fantastically particular man. 'I love solitude, I love space, I love privacy,' he says. 'That's why I was determined never to have children. I couldn't bear the idea of having children. I didn't want a crowd.' He is brutally intolerant of any food, wine, artefact, kitchen utensil, hygiene standard, that doesn't strike him as being up to scratch.
'I notice everything,' he says. 'Everything. Everything. I notice every bit of bad workmanship and I am upset by it. Upset that other people - the people who did it - didn't mind.' This rather precious seeming sensitivity has often been attributed to Naipaul's brahminical background. But it may be more convincingly interpreted as a reaction against his background - a refusal to go back to the days of being the colonial boy, palmed off with the second-rate. As the writer Ian Buruma once commented, in reference to Naipaul's eagle eye for imperfect detail, 'Perhaps one has to come from a slovenly colony to take what is slipshod as an insult.'
If Naipaul felt imprisoned by island life, the torment of his beloved father - a newspaper journalist whose literary hopes had never been fulfilled and whose disappointments led him eventually to nervous breakdown - provided a vivid picture of what awaited him, if he didn't manage to escape.
Naipaul loved his father intensely; so much so, that after he died in 1953 he found himself unable to bear the company of his mother. 'We had a very good relationship until then and then something happened. Something happened inside of me. I don't know - I was away and I found it very hard to write home. And then when I did go back, I just could not control the irritation I felt in her presence. I was intensely irritated by her. But intensely.'
His feelings towards his mother have, he says, softened somewhat since she died. 'I have thought of her with a lot of love and affection.' But it is his father whom he finds himself admiring 'more and more'. It was his father who provided the model for the eponymous protagonist of A House for Mr Biswas (1961) - a man who pits himself heroically against the forces of ignorance and superstition in his Trinidadian community. It was his father who gave him a sense of the dignity and worth of the writer's calling. Not least, it was his father who invested him with what he has called 'a fear of extinction'.
Once, in the middle of his breakdown, his father looked in a mirror and began to scream. He couldn't see his own reflection, he said. Fear of the horrid fate that this incident seemed to symbolise - disappearance, failure, non-being - stayed with Naipaul for many years. He regards that fear as having been a valuable inheritance, because it impelled him to write. But as cures for writer's block go, this strikes me as a pretty rough one.
Its most significant side-effect seems to have been an extraordinary vulnerability to stress. Naipaul fairly vibrates with nerves - or with the anticipation that his nerves are about to be sorely tried. He is prone to describe mishaps as 'crises'. Often, he says, he is on the verge of tears when writing: 'Oh yes, especially when I'm getting a little tired. It's the stress of writing, yes. Yes, yes, yes.' While at Oxford in the Fifties, he attempted suicide. (He tried to gas himself, but the gas ran out before he became unconscious and he had no more money to feed the meter.) When I ask why he wanted to end his life, he says: 'I suppose wretchedness, really - the way the young can be wretched.'
In all his autobiographical writing, he has made nothing but the most fleeting mention of his marriage: 'It's very hard for me,' he says. 'Very hard. That side is very hard.'
'All what side?'
'Essentially I suppose that for many many years, one was . . . one lived with the idea of deprivation. I don't know if that makes sense. I feel . . . I don't think it's fair to, to . . . wound people. I suppose it's come out in all sorts of other ways. I think it's found symbolic expression all through my work. Ibsen's emotional deprivation comes out in his work too. And Dickens - it comes out there too, doesn't
it? Do you think, from the point of view of passion, he was fulfilled with Ellen Ternan?'
Starting to get his writing published helped exorcise some of his youthful wretchedness. His early fiction - breezy, satirical stuff, based on his childhood in Trinidad - was very well received. His first novel, The Mystic Masseur, won the John Llewelyn Rhys Memorial Prize in 1957. In the following year came The Suffrage of Elvira and then in 1959 he won the Somerset Maugham Award for Miguel Street. More than three decades on, with another 18 or so books under his belt, he is, he says, a far more secure and happy man, with none of the old fear of extinction: 'Oh yes, one's done one's work - one jolly well knows one's done more work than most people. No fear of extinction there. That's been dealt with.'
The claim is not entirely convincing. Just a few minutes later he is describing the feeling of having one's close relations die. 'You feel you are being wiped out, that's what you feel,' he says. 'That's what I told my mother just before she died. Her brother had died and I said to her on the phone, 'It's as though we are on the shore and the sea is washing us away]' '
I listen to this, and I am thinking: Hey, that's a cheery thing to say to your dying mother. He must catch something in my expression, because he then adds: 'It was a good thing to tell her - it made her laugh.'
'She thought that was funny?'
'Oh yes]' he says. 'She laughed. It was a good thing to say at that moment to her. Yes, yes, yes.'
The family evidently shared an appreciation of each other's nervous glooms. 'Apprehension,' Naipaul's younger brother Shiva once told him, 'is my truest feeling.'
'Yes, I suppose his was the same sort of fear,' Naipaul says. 'But with me, because I left home early on and had no protection, I had to overcome it. I couldn't luxuriate in it.'
Shiva Naipaul, 13 years his brother's junior, was also a writer. He died in 1985, having published several respected works of fiction and travel writing. But he was neither as prolific nor as celebrated a writer as his brother. Had there been rivalry between them?
'No,' Naipaul says, 'it was his wish that we did not see each other much. The antagonism was on his side.'
So there was rivalry?
'No, there was no rivalry, because my attitude was - with all my family really - one of great acceptance . . . I adored my family. I left home when my brother was five and stayed away six years, and to me, the memory of him was absolutely . . . How could there be rivalry, when there was this great love?'
'Well, love doesn't preclude rivalry. You can still feel . . .'
'Nooooo]' Naipaul's jowls shake with the vigour of his denial. 'God, why should I feel that? When things went well for my brother, I was delighted. I mean he was like my son] I just wish I could have done more for the family, but I couldn't. I came here with pounds 6 and no talent.'
'Oh, talent is something you develop. You can't just go around saying, 'I have talent
as a writer.' '
'Certainly - but you must have had a talent in order to nurture it.'
'I wonder. I wonder. I'll have to think about that before I give a reply . . . There is inclination. There is will. There is a capacity for learning. But I'm not sure there is talent, you know.'
Here is Naipaul's work ethic made plain: Talents are not given to men. Men make them for themselves. To be without talents - like the rioting British thugs - is not, as one might think, a misfortune; it is a moral failing, a sign of lassitude or insufficient drive.
BUT THE injunction given in Naipaul's writing is not merely to progress, to leap forward at the future. The fight against extinction - the desire to give shape and sense to one's life - also involves understanding the past. Part of what Naipaul came to dislike about the culture in which he grew up was its peculiar absence of a historical sense. Even his family's recent history was shadowy and vague. 'Beyond (and sometimes even within) people's memories was undated time, historical darkness,' Naipaul has written. 'The India from which we had come was impossibly remote, almost as imaginary as the land of the Ramayana, our Hindu epic.'
For Naipaul to establish his own narrative in life, it was essential to illuminate the darkness of his family's past. In 1962, he travelled to India and spent a year there. He was horribly distressed by what he found. It was as if everything that he had found repellent about Trinidad had been multiplied many times over. An Area of Darkness was the book that resulted from this journey and in it, he was remorselessly candid about the feelings of depression and horror that India had inspired in him.
He wrote about its maddening, Dickensian bureaucracy, its enthralment to superstition, its grotesque poverty, its almost mythical filth. He wrote about Indian inertia: the miseries he had depicted were not, he said, going to fade away in a hurry. India was consigned to its agonies for the foreseeable future.
It was a spiky book, full of uncomfortable sentiments, and it went very much against the grain of what, at that time, was considered politically correct to say about India. Rarely was the truth of Naipaul's observations disputed. But the interpretation he put on them, or the propriety of even publishing them, was fiercely contested. Naipaul was unduly pessimistic, it was claimed. He only saw the negative things about India.
In 1990, Naipaul wrote India: A Million Mutinies Now, a great tome that took another look at India and decided the country's prospects were looking up. Ostensibly at least, this was a somewhat perverse line for Naipaul to take. Most people seemed agreed that India was doing rather worse than before. But the book was seen by many as recompense for An Area of Darkness - a cheery perspective that cancelled out Naipaul's previous gloom. Naipaul is irritated by this interpretation.
'To talk about pessimism or optimism - these are very foolish categories,' he says. 'How can you be optimistic or pessimistic about something as big as India? It's too big, it has its own life. To say I'm pessimistic about that life is like saying I'm optimistic about the elephant or I'm pessimistic about the lake. This pessimism business - it's just a one-liner. People are always looking for the one-liner. It's trivia, really. Trivia.'
He attributes most of the fuss that An Area of Darkness caused to Western faux-liberalism. It was creepy First World types, he says - the ones who find drastic poverty 'enchanting' - who refused to recognise the truths he was telling. 'I met a French journalist the other day who had just been to Calcutta - and oh, it was the biggest experience in her life, that human degradation she'd witnessed. It made her feel good. And these people are presented to me as people with finer sensibilities than mine]
Their attitude is meant to be superior to my 'aggression'] This is this odd attitude to degradation: if you don't feel threatened by it, you can revel in it.'
His opponents aren't just soppy tourists, however. In India and throughout the Third World there are many who regard him with the deepest suspicion. The St Lucian poet Derek Walcott, who once referred to him in a poem as 'V S Nightfall', has expressed considerable coolness about his portrayals of Caribbean culture. The Palestinian writer Edward Said has criticised him for a supposedly unfriendly attitude to post-colonial countries. Salman Rushdie has bemoaned his lack of compassion. Implicit in some of this complaint is the sense that Naipaul has taken on the values of the old colonial masters, including their racial prejudices.
Naipaul is impatient with this sort of accusation. When I asked him why, in his book about the American Deep South, A Turn in the South, he had chosen to give such a charmed and gentle account of redneck culture, he began his response calmly enough, but drifted rapidly into sarcasm. 'Look, there's a side of the South we all know about already,' he said. 'I know I was expected to express anger and outrage and things like that. The New Yorker (which published extracts from the book) wanted me to express outrage about slavery, and they began to write it into my writing. I] Who was concerned about slavery long before they were] Oh, but you understand they're much more concerned than one is. They care much more.'
As with the tales of hippies revelling in Indian poverty, it is hard not to sympathise with this account of white liberals spurring him on to righteousness. None the less, Naipaul's friends say that in private he does frequently express crude ideas about race. And at least one old friend has incorporated these ideas into a novel. In Paul Theroux's book My Secret History, there is a character called S Prasad, for whom Naipaul happily admits he is the prototype. Prasad is a dour, troubled figure who wanders about in pyjamas, being weird about sex and making unfunny racist remarks. Of Pakistanis, for example, he says, 'Can you blame the English for complaining? They're no better than your bow-and-arrow men.'
'Did you like the picture he gave of you?' I asked Naipaul.
'I read it very fast,' he said. 'I don't dawdle. So I haven't taken it in, but . . . Paul had the freedom to do what he wished.'
'Did you think it was an accurate portrait of you?'
'It is a view of one - an outsider's view.'
'I thought he was too kind. Too kind.'
NAIPAUL IS working on another book at the moment - 'a sequence of narrations' that is long overdue at the publishers. Until quite recently he would break up his working day with a bout of callisthenics, which was, he says, 'very good for the will'. But his body has begun to rebel - 'it has been a great calamity' - and now he must content himself with the occasional visit to the gym, to lift weights. The rest of his time is spent mostly in contemplation, he says: 'I think for hours every day.' As he utters the words, the phone begins to go. 'I sit down and think, yes,' he continues, wincing at the ringing. 'When I'm not writing, I think.' The ringing persists. 'I think, yes, I think,' he says. And with that, he rises and goes, bad-temperedly, to answer the phone.-
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