Seeing, feeling, and thinking with Sir Vidia. Snatches from my conversations with the greatest writer of English prose
Roderick Matthews | 16 Aug, 2018
Who was Sir Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul? He was the bright boy, born into the Indian community of
Trinidad in 1932, who decided at the age of 11 that he wanted to be a writer. With pencil and paper in hand he left home at 18 for a scholarship place at Oxford, hoping to find some ‘metropolitan material’ along the way. Descendant of migrant labourers, he travelled from early on, and the search for work continued. The outsider never entirely came in.
Long hailed as the greatest living writer of English prose, the variety and fluency of Sir Vidia’s output testifies to the truth of the accolade. Thirty books across the decades; memoir, fiction, reportage, travelogue. He was effortlessly flexible, creating hybrid vehicles in which it is difficult to discern where fiction becomes fact, where memory and invention intersect. His dedication to the craft of writing was exceptional; partly a quest, wholly a means of support. A full life, but he said that he really needed three; one for experience, one for writing, and one for living.
His natural home was long-form prose, and in conversation he was not voluble. He spoke in sentences rather than paragraphs, preferring short balanced phrases. Penetration was the key, coupled with economy; I don’t think I ever heard him yield an um or an er. During a discussion about manipulation within families, his wife, Nadira, asked him whether she had ever been a pushover. “Not for long,” was the terse verdict. No one wrote like Naipaul, but not even Naipaul spoke like Naipaul wrote.
In person, he was much more Victorian than I had expected. He was courteous at all times, had no time for vulgarity, and avoided profanity. This had an elevating effect in company, as everyone tried to lose the rather Georgian atmosphere of contemporary London with its ribaldry and raucousness. VS was a calming presence; a guarantee that higher standards still existed.
There was a stocky defiance about him. As a younger man he earned a reputation as difficult, but he laid the burden of the difficulty upon the literary professionals around him. “They were rather foolish people, my publishers. I never felt they helped me.” Here spoke the legacy of the occasions when a new work was found wanting.
But we can understand. First, he wrote to live; he had nothing else. Rejection was not lightly to be borne when years had to be committed to the writing. Second, he was usually right, not least over A Bend in the River (1979). Widely now considered his masterpiece, it was judged too cerebral at the time by his agent, who was shortly afterwards dumped.
He was legendarily unwilling to make changes—‘touch one comma and you’re dead’ was rumoured to be his motto.
This side of him—the side that earned him a reputation for caustic wit—fell away somewhat over the years, though not entirely. When I was introduced to him as a man with a book recently published, he asked only: “Is it a good book?” A fair question, I thought, and well put. “Parts of it are interesting,” I replied, and he smiled.
It is true that he didn’t suffer fools gladly, but in that he was hardly unique. How many of us would proudly wear a T-shirt bearing the legend ‘I LOVE listening to idiots’. What did make him unique was his acuity as an observer, and his ability to sustain ideas and insights across extended literary space.
He wrote of using ‘the literary eye’. I asked him how that shaped his work.
“What I meant was that I had been trained to see by fellow writers. Then you get this looking and thinking.”
His work revolved around the ability not only to see clearly what is there and to describe it pithily, but also to see what is invisible, what is poetically true, and how human relationships, on both a large and small scale, develop and change. His use of parallels and his ability to extend his themes over hundreds of pages make his reading both exciting and calming. References to colour are common, and helpful.
I asked him how he was able to remember colours so vividly, sometimes across long years. “If I mention a colour, it means I have a feeling for it.” Which explains both the accuracy, and the effortless integration of the material into the scenes.
He had a talent for writing at the speed of thought. Faster, and he might baffle the reader; slower, he would irritate. Big ideas emerge from the words in real time, and small events are enough to illuminate grand themes. The density of his writing has a poetic sensibility about it, and I asked if he ever wrote poetry. “No. I was happy with prose. It was the influence of my father, who wrote stories. So this came to me as something I would like to do—that I should write stories, or write the way he wanted to write. I liked the way he wrote.”
His ability to observe people and places was remarkable, and, very evidently, he was doing it till the last. We spent an evening in a club near his London home, and I saw him constantly tracing the human ebb and flow around the room. The animation of his face and body told me he was actively working. Equally remarkable was his ability to listen. When he gave you his attention, it felt like something worth having.
He never relished the talking parts of the writing game—the PR circuit. “No, I didn’t enjoy that side of it. I wanted to get on with the next thing. What I had to say I had put in the book.”
He didn’t feel that there was any specific place that a new reader should start out on his work, but anyone wishing to understand him as a writer in his own words should read The Enigma of Arrival (1987) and A Writer’s People (2007). The former is a reflective memoir, the latter a collection of essays about seeing and feeling as a writer. Both touch repeatedly on his Trinidad childhood and the ways it formed him.
Only two generations away from rural north India, the Naipaul family was large, and at times shambolic, as its Hindu heritage gradually faded into a round of hollowed-out rituals and superstitions. But without his family, he said he “could never have arrived at a sense of the world … how to look at it.” His father Seepersad—a journalist— never talked down to him, and filled in much about the world that he was not taught at school. He remembers especially enjoying visits to the Trinidad Dairies, near his school, where his father would buy him a half pint of milk. “He educated me.”
Sir Vidia’s willingness to transcend his local pond brought criticism, and the accusation that he had somehow been disloyal to the far-flung corners of the world, because he left and wrote about other things. Trinidadians, Africans and Indians felt demeaned; his first book on India, An Area of Darkness (1964), was immediately banned in the country. But he merely wrote down what he saw, what he felt, and what he thought.
Naipaul’s wife Nadira asked him whether she had ever been a pushover. “Not for long,” was the terse verdict
In A Writer’s People, he addressed these issues, albeit a little indirectly, by asserting that writers who remain obsessed with their local concerns, such as Derek Walcott, were ultimately limiting their vision and their scope. Thus Walcott, in the end, was “a disappointing writer”, he told me. Naipaul took the view that writing of value must rise above its local context, otherwise it is simply an internal memo from one part of a social group to another. This applies as much to Jane Austen or Anthony Powell as to any post-colonial author.
I pointed out that he had never responded directly to criticism. “It wasn’t worth it,” is all he would say. He was, however, consistent about the views of others, being also impervious to adulation. When I asked him whether he felt different, or wrote differently, once he had found his public, he shook his head.
“You didn’t feel pressure from an audience?”
“Did you lose anxiety at all?”
“No. Anxiety is part of a writing career. It comes with it.” He was always his own man, working alone.
“I think you are unusual,” I continued, “in that you are very self-critical but also somehow able to push away what other people think.”
“What a nice thing to say about a writer.”
A subtle deflection. “You were using writing to come out of solitude?” “Yes.”
“But at the same time, writing was driving you back into solitude.”
“Did you see that as a paradox?”
We both laughed.
“I had no set way of writing,” he told me. Each book generated its own rules, though he admitted to feeling “more in control later on”.
I asked him about inspiration, if and how it worked for him. “There were times when I was waiting, not knowing what to write next. Inspiration is where the words come easily … and if the words are good words … if they have strength.”
Sometimes the ideas came from fragments, built up slowly into longer work, like In a Free State (1971), which had a long hard childhood as an atmosphere and a set of landscapes, before it grew to maturity and won the Man Booker Prize. Other books came quickly and complete, like A Bend in the River, which condensed from a dream and took only a relatively short time to complete.
His artistic mission was disarmingly simple. “I wasn’t driven on by curiosity, I was just recording what I had seen. That is what I wanted to do.”
Writing was his living, and he often referred to it as hard. Did he know what he was getting into, I wondered.
“I expected it to be very hard, you know.”
I asked if, after all this time, he had arrived at a state of peace. He shook his head. Did he still have things to say? “Yes,” he replied emphatically.
He was not a sentimental person in his writing. Incorruptible scrutiny was his register, as deftly defined by the Nobel citation in 2001. I once had a very long talk with him about the clear-eyed way he had understood English farming in the first section of The Enigma of Arrival. I grew up in a farming community and can vouch for the accuracy of what he wrote.
Incorruptible security was Naipaul’s register, as deftly defined by the Nobel citation in 2001
I was also struck by the elegance with which he explored the countryside’s cycles of life and death, old and new, ripe and rotten. Similar observations had been made many times, from Virgil down to Thomas Hardy, but the Naipaul take was more comprehensive and more contemporary. He saw beyond the rural rhythms affecting animals and plants, and managed to lay out revealing parallels and contrasts about people, their dwellings and even the mud through which they trudged.
Yet Naipaul could be misunderstood, even by the brightest. Salman Rushdie found only melancholy in Enigma. That, I suggest, was because he brought his mythic understanding of the man to the book. He thus missed the message of hope and rebirth the book was telling, with its fertile oppositions of activity and idleness, its brilliant evocation of things discarded and superseded, which included the author’s younger self and self-deceptions.
Rushdie also couldn’t find the word ‘love’ in the book, but in this he was simply wrong. It is there; I stopped counting after seven.
Naipaul set out to see with his literal and literary eyes, refusing to idealise Wiltshire, letting it come to him as it was, allowing himself to transcend his own ignorance and misconceptions. Here is an irony to be richly savoured; Naipaul the open-minded observer, Rushdie the closed-up reader.
But Rushdie should not be too harshly taxed for using his literary intelligence. Naipaul’s silence over the years was complicit in these misunderstandings, and the prickliness of his younger days—what he described as the ‘rawness’ of his nerves as an outsider— laid down a maze of chimerical trails.
Some of these can be crudely summarised and equally crudely dismissed. Didn’t like Muslims; he married one. Didn’t rate women writers; one of his oldest friends was Lady Antonia Fraser. An intolerant right-winger; he enjoyed a long friendship with the screenwriter and former Black Panther Farrukh Dhondy, who was as left of the side plate as VS was right of the soupspoon. Even his legendary feud with Paul Theroux was a rather one-sided affair. There was a picture of Paul on the bookcase in Sir Vidia’s bedroom; he pointed it out to me and described Theroux as an old friend.
And some things, of course, were true. He was known for harbouring dismissive opinions about his alma mater. “Oxford was full of second-rate people,” he told me and then asked me, as an old Oxonian myself, whether I had found the same. Here I encountered a typical Naipaul moment. I have always been kind, in my memory, to the place and the people I met there. But when really pushed, when held to a higher standard of truthfulness by the man, I had to reply that though I had been taught by some fine minds, most of the other people I met could fairly be described as normal. If by ‘second rate’ we mean ‘not out of the ordinary’, I was forced to concede that he was right. He didn’t say that everyone was second rate, only that a lot of second-rate people were there. I wouldn’t put it like that, but putting things his way is the very essence of what earned Naipaul the prizes, gongs and houses. Here was a man who had no fear of saying things that were uncomfortably honest.
This was his trademark, and though it led him into trouble occasionally, it never bothered him. One of the first times I met him was over a meal in an Indian restaurant in Tooting. Lady Naipaul asked him if he had enjoyed the food. “No, I didn’t,” he replied. Because he probably hadn’t. So with Oxford. “I learned nothing. Nothing at all.” And no, he probably didn’t. “It passed over me … like a wave,” was all he would reveal.
He was often his own subject, and the more autobiographical reaches of his work show a writer determined to move on from ready-made forms and standard concerns, a man who was trying to explain himself, in the various senses that might convey. “I am a modern writer,” he agreed. He was modern because he bent form away from tradition, and because he included himself in the picture, in a way that classic novelists would not. But perhaps the most vitally modern aspect of his work lay in the way he first recognised, then strove to reconcile the division between ‘the man and the writer’.
“I worked very hard for that.” Yes, you did.
I once read a book about modern art which used Jean Cocteau’s concept of ‘sacred monsters’—gifted individuals at war with tradition, justified by what they produce, and excused the means they employ. Who can understand characters so driven that they unsettle their own lives, and those of others, to create the things we all admire? Special ingredients make special dishes. Sometimes, however, special methods are enough. Many who knew Naipaul along the way paid a price of some sort. Many seem to have deemed it worth it.
We talked one evening about the process of observation, and I ventured that it was a circular and permanent process— that writers observe, yet also harvest material from observing themselves observing. Though sometimes productive, this is a compulsion that cannot easily be laid aside.
“I suppose once you start on that process, it doesn’t end,” I suggested. “Is that why you kept writing?”
“That is true. I never thought of it like that, but now that you have put it like that, I think it is true of me.”
“Was that difficult?”
“I didn’t find it a burden.”
He looked away, drawn to the many red lights that illuminate the sky in our ever-augmenting capital. Cranes. Construction. Always something new to see.
“You are still thinking like that now, aren’t you?” He nodded.
I pushed further. “You’re not going to give up, are you?”
“Never,” he replied, firmly.
(This is an edited version of an article originally written for the forthcoming book Peerless Minds: A Celebration, edited by Pritish Nandy and Tapan Chaki, to be published by Harper Collins. The book is supported by a grant from Sunil Kanti Roy of the Peerless Group. All royalties from the book will go to the Ramakrishna Mission’s Sister Nivedita School for Girls)