VS Naipaul

June 1998 / Prospect, Issue 31

What is it about VS Naipaul that inspires such dispute? For much of the past four decades, he has lived peripatetically, returning, again and again, to the Caribbean, where he was born, to the Indian subcontinent, southeast Asia, Africa and the Americas, a restless traveller grappling with the post-colonial era. His work has a superb worldliness. Not since Conrad has a novelist so completely absorbed himself in the shifting complexities of his age, or written more sharply about the dark places of the world. Certainly no contemporary novelist shares his gift of watching, of noticing, or his willingness to travel to remote places to find a subject. Nor does anyone write more convincingly of displacement and exile, of the loneliness of the migrant.

Much of this comes from his own feelings of estrangement, of what the critic John King calls his “almost genetic sense of rootlessness, of shipwreck as an ontological condition.” His journey from the margins of a colonial upbringing among impoverished Hindi-speaking Indians in Trinidad to the centre of an influential literary life was painful. “When I talk about being an exile or a refugee I’m not just using a metaphor,” he once said. “I’m talking literally.”

In The Enigma of Arrival (1987), his sad pastoral describing the period when he lived in a cottage on the Wiltshire estate of the recluse Stephen Tennant, Naipaul describes watching the sun set over Stonehenge. The experience disorients him; he feels of the landscape yet apart from it, a “stranger here, with the nerves of a stranger.”

The novel moves with melancholic langour; Naipaul, a self-consciously alien presence in an emblematically English setting, monitors with eerie exactitude the slow decline of his aristocratic neighbour and the villagers around him. He watches the changes in the landscape, the movement of the seasons, with an innocent eye, seeing as a child might for the first time. He never allows you to forget that his presence in this haunted landscape is part of a larger historical process which has carried him from Trinidad to this remote corner of Wiltshire.

A sense of existential unease defines his work, the richest and most complex of any postwar British writer. In A Bend in the River, he writes about a young Indian living in a hostile, unnamed African republic. In a Free State is also concerned with people far from home, with strategies of survival in hostile territory, most memorably a British expatriate couple speeding across central Africa against a background of civil war. His books, occupying an ambiguous space between fiction and non-fiction, are haunted by solitude, disciplined by a need to understand the post-colonial world. He writes to provide discoveries about the nature of modern society, monitoring the collision between Islam and western enlightenment. Reading Naipaul can be desolating: he lifts the scab off the surface of decolonised societies and reveals festering wounds.

His judgements are merciless, haughty, sometimes cruel. He does not set out to challenge liberal orthodoxy on race or Islam for the thrill of it, rather he seems to reflect unselfconsciously the prejudices of his Hindu-Caribbean roots. But he is pitiless in his analysis of the anxiety of decolonised peoples. In The Middle Passage (1962), his journey through the Caribbean, he dismisses attempts by Afro-Caribbeans to understand their African antecedents as the “sentimental camaraderie of skin.” Later in the book he speaks of how colonialism distorts the identity of subject people. “The Negro in particular is bewildered and irritable. Racial equality and assimilation are attractive but only underline the loss, since to accept assimilation is in a way to accept permanent inferiority.”

There is a misanthropic zeal, a sexual disgust and rage in his work; but also a comedy, tenderness and generosity. This generosity was strikingly apparent when he travelled to the deep south of the US, a former plantation society reminding him of his native Trinidad. In A Turn in the South (1989), Naipaul elegises redneck culture. He finds pathos in the poor whites’ accounts of loss and betrayal, describing them as the “real victims” of shifts in race relations.

In the canon of recent British fiction he is without peer; VS Pritchett is his only serious rival. Iris Murdoch, Graham Greene, Martin Amis, Salman Rushdie: all display the anxiety of their influences. But Naipaul is perhaps the only writer today in whom there are no echoes of influence. He follows no formula-believing the novel is not a mould into which words are poured. Weary of the mechanics of fiction-plot, characterisation, suspense, the need to invent stories- he created his own form, a complex blending of autobiography, fiction, reportage and social commentary. There is nothing quite like it.

Two of his most important novels, In A Free State, winner of the Booker in 1971, and The Enigma of Arrival, begin and end with extracts from a personal journal, asking: Where is the writer? Who is the “I” inventing this fiction? It is as if Naipaul first has to identify who he is and why he sees as he does before he can lose himself in an imaginative realm. So the fiction floats on an autobiographical crust. “A writer after a time carries his world with him,” he says, “his own burden of experience, human experience, literary experience (one deepening the other)...”

vs naipaul is sitting, straight-backed, at a table in the drawing room of his smart, minimally furnished central London flat. His thinning hair is brushed back, revealing a smooth, pale forehead; his silver beard prospers wirily. Hard sunlight filters through a window, casting long shadows behind him. He often refers to himself as the “writer,” as if he were addressing someone outside the room. His speech is elaborate, ornate, rhythmic; he repeats the ends of certain phrases, a mannerism which the writer Stephen Schiff calls “the Naipaul bis,” from the musical term for a passage that repeats.

“I have arrived at this form slowly,” Naipaul says, explaining his technique. “Because of my background and the nature of my life, because I was not given knowledge of where I came from. I have had to learn about my background and the past. One learns about the history of the island from where one came, of slavery; the history of revolution and then going back, the history of India, the desolating history of India, all the way back to the Muslim invasion of AD 1000-the wrecking of a country. I’ve had to learn, slowly through my writing. So I’ve not been able to write like people from England, France and America. The writer [Naipaul] had to define himself.”

One of his more mischievous claims is that most of the important works of fiction were written in the 19th century, between 1830 and 1895. He dislikes the word “novel,” and is baffled as to why it is important to write or read invented stories. “I don’t see reading as an act of drugging oneself with a narrative. I don’t need that,” he has said. “There is so much reading, so much understanding of the world that I still have to do. We are, after all, living in an extraordinary age when so much knowledge is available that was not 100 years ago.

“There was a time when fiction provided discoveries about the nature of society, about states, which gave those works of fiction a validity over and above the narrative element. But the best novels have already been written.”

He believes that all forms have to be rethought. “Before the novel in Europe there was the essay, the narrative poem, theatre, the epic poem-all considered the principal forms at various times. There is no longer any need to consider the novel as the principal form… Readers have to be alert to the changes and not ask for more of what has gone before.”

In conversation, he is scathing about most contemporary Indian writing. Magic realism, he feels, is intrinsically dishonest, with its preposterousness of tone and careless disregard for reality. “I have no wish to use fantasy, or to write in a borrowed form,” Naipaul says. “The truth has to be found in other ways: in travel, history, in looking at monuments. If you read most Indian writers they are writing about the externals of things; they are borrowing the form, pretending that they are blind Irishmen or Latin Americans. The fantastic stands in place of enquiry, in place of facing reality. This whole thing makes me wonder about the Latin Americans, too, as if their writing isn’t, in fact, a great intellectual fudge: an avoidance of their calamitous history and of their corrupt rule since the Spaniards left.”

Yet his reluctance to exoticise underdeveloped societies, in the manner of Rushdie, Toni Morrison or Má∑±uez, has worked against him. As Pankaj Mishra, a writer and publisher based in New Delhi, points out: “One of the reasons why Naipaul’s achievement is not sufficiently valued is because of the commercial success of magic realism. First, there was Má∑±uez and those who borrowed from him, like Rushdie, who inspired droves of imitators into writing those rambling novels that come out almost every week and are mistakenly identified as Indian, Arab or African writing. Naipaul’s insistence on finding out the honest truth about individual lives, what makes or unmakes people in a particular society, their past, their aspirations and illusions; his unsparing psychological realism that enables him to make large statements about what he calls half-made societies has a limited appeal for a middle-class readership in the west. They just want to read romantic tales about the exotic east and can cope with the social-political stuff only in so far as it stays at the level of banal comment.”

Naipaul’s interview persona is curious, essentially an elaborate act. The subtext of his remark about magic realism carries an implicit rebuke of Salman Rushdie and his many young imitators. Rushdie has written disparagingly of the unearned melancholy and exhaustion in Naipaul’s later work, and has suggested that his celebrated formal daring signifies nothing more than a failure of imagination. “When the strength for fiction fails the writer, what remains is autobiography,” he wrote in a review of The Enigma of Arrival.

When I remind Naipaul of this, he laughs, saying of Rushdie, as of every other writer I mention: “I don’t know who you are talking about, I really don’t know at all.” In this wilful ignorance there is immense pride, arrogance even: I don’t read my contemporaries, he seems to say, I have nothing to learn from them. This, he wants you to think, is a writer without influence, operating outside time. Later he confirms my feeling by saying: “I am not aware of other styles of writing. I do my own, I write in my own way. I have no models. I always try to read very old writing, Elizabethan prose. The travellers are good, Haklyut’s Voyages. Words were then used with a freshness, they were not tainted. Today, words are overused.”

Edward Said, one of his most trenchant critics, is similarly dispatched into the outer-darkness of unknowing. “Who is he? I don’t know any of these people,” Naipaul says, with a chuckle that undermines the tone of lofty disapproval. “These names don’t matter. It is wrong of you to put their criticisms to me. I cannot comment on anything that is said about me. Do you know how much is said about me? It’s an open secret that what is coming out of the universities is rubbish. Everybody knows this.”

Perhaps Naipaul is wise to ignore his critics, for there are many of them. Valentine Cunningham, arch cultural inflator and a Booker judge this year, wrote an article in the Independent last December, excitedly celebrating the achievements of the contemporary British novel. Yet in his eagerness to bestow greatness on writers as ordinary as Julian Barnes, Michਬe Roberts, John Banville and, comically, Lawrence Durrell, he ignored the only living British writer worthy of such an epithet: Naipaul.

This oversight is echoed, again and again, throughout academe, where Naipaul’s unpredictable politics and transnational worldliness inspire violent debate. He has been called a “despicable lackey of neo-colonialism” (HB Singh); a “cold and sneering prophet” (Eric Roach); and a “restorer of the comforting myths of the white race” (Chinua Achebe).

Rob Nixon, a disciple of Edward Said and author of London Calling: VS Naipaul, Postcolonial Mandarin, mockingly describes him as the “metropole’s favourite interpreter of the third world” and accuses him of elevating himself above affiliation. Nixon is suspicious, too, of what he sees as Naipaul’s self-regarding attempt to portray himself as a refugee, his attempt to live in a condition of willed homelessness, his elevated solitude. He approvingly quotes the observation of the Afrikaaner writer Breyten Breytenbach that exile is a sterile, foreclosed category to be fitted into. “I reject the notion of exile because there is the immediate tendency when one mentions exile to self-dramatise or to self-pity.”

Edward Said goes further, accusing Naipaul of forming “orientalist” judgements, of programmatically representing the cultures of the east as primitive, barbaric and illiterate, the dark Other against which the enlightened west defines itself. Naipaul, he writes in his essay “The Intellectual in the Post-Colonial World,” immorally “allows himself quite consciously to be turned into a witness for the western persecution of the third world.” Said is, in one sense, accurate: Naipaul is indeed a witness, constructing narratives from innumerable small details of things seen, although not of persecution. His response to the corruption and degradation he encounters on his travels is more complex, less easily caricatured than that, his sense of history more idiosyncratic, deeper. He understands how imperialism can rob the colonised of a sense of history and identity.

In A House for Mr Biswas, his comic masterpiece based on the struggles of his father, Naipaul writes of the artificial nature of the colonial existence-of Biswas working late into the night to paint “Santa Clauses and holly and berries and snow-capped letters” on shops signs which “quickly blistered in the morning sun.” Biswas is oppressed by feelings of inauthenticity; he spends his entire life failing to make the smallest mark on history: as a writer, a father and an aspirant home-owner. He is trapped in a historical moment, a piece of straw caught up in the whirlwind of the Indian diaspora, helpless to alter his own destiny. He is oppressed, too, by an inexplicable sense of loss, “not of present loss, but of something missing in the past,” something bound up with the distant humiliations of India itself, the native land from where his father arrived in the Caribbean as indentured labour. There is something more, too: as he wanders through the fields of his home village, Biswas is half-aware of the spectral presence of the aboriginal peoples of Trinidad, the missing tribes of Amerindians, in whose footsteps he walks and whose calamitous extinction prefigured a fate worse even than slavery.

a sense of history as a kind of palimpsest-with successive arrivals of people erasing the influence of those who have gone before-is crucial to an understanding of Naipaul and, in particular, of his depiction of India as a country of “headless” people, mortally wounded by the rule of Islamic Mogul rulers. Beyond Belief: Excursions Among the Converted Peoples (Little, Brown, ?20), his 23rd and most recent book, is based on a characteristically anti-Islamic Naipaulian premise: that Islam makes imperial demands. Because Islam is in its origins an Arab religion, every Muslim who is not an Arab is a convert. This can lead to entire peoples, such as those in Pakistan, the Muslim homeland of India, becoming estranged from their pasts and the older traditions which surround them.

One wonders if the same applies to Christianity, another religion of converts? Although Naipaul never asks this question, his answer, one suspects, would be that conversion, conquest and the rooting out of local culture are intrinsic to fundamentalist Islam, in a way that they are not to Christianity. As the poet Muhammad Iqbal, quoted by Naipaul and an early advocate of an Islamic state in India, says, Islam is radically different from Christianity. It comes with certain political and legal concepts. These concepts have “civic significance” and create a certain kind of social order. The “religious ideal” cannot be separated from the social order.

An intensely personal view of history, steeped in anti-Islamic sentiment, defines Naipaul’s every utterance about India. His critics accuse him of endorsing the ruling BJP’s reassertion of Hindu national identity and by extension the subcontinent’s frightening new arms race. But in his books he repeatedly returns to what he considers to be the tragedy of the Indian people, from the Islamic conquests to the expulsions from post-colonial east Africa.

When I begin to question Naipaul about India, he rises abruptly from his seat, walks across the room, and returns with a book. “Look at this,” he says, and shows me a photograph of the Temple of Lingaraja at Bhubaneshwar. He smoothes the open pages with delicate fingers. The photograph is old; the temple has an immense desolation. “The picture was taken less than 100 years ago. The temple is now cleaned up. But look at it, look at this enormously fine temple: abandoned, ruined, grass growing. What a ruin it was!”

He lifts his head, his eyes watering a little. “I carry this picture inside my head. There is something spectacular about the dereliction of India-it’s like the dereliction of no other country. Can you imagine the grandeur of the visions and the confidence of the country that created these things, a confidence you see in the epics and religious texts; and how the people themselves have lost touch with this idea of confidence? They don’t know what defeat really meant, or that they were made a headless people, as much as the Mexicans and Peruvians were made headless by the Spanish.”

But Naipaul does not condemn British imperialism: he considers it to have been largely beneficial in bringing about the unification of India in the late 19th century and in the institutions left behind. “I was taught never to blame someone outside, but to look inward for the sources of weakness. And we are weak. The Muslims just came in, again and again, ransacking and tearing up the place. Our people had no idea of country, what they had to defend. They couldn’t imagine a more organised world, with a uniting idea or focus. They allowed themselves to be enslaved by these invasions. This is where I have got to in my thinking. It is a very painful conclusion to arrive at, to explain this dereliction, these villagers reduced to slavery, these people serving an alien people. What we are witnessing now, starting with the British period, is a very slow rebirth. But what we are left with is a large group of headless people.”

Naipaul has written about headlessness before, but obliquely and in a different context: in In a Free State, where a human head literally explodes, and in The Enigma of Arrival, where the narrator speaks of a dream of an exploding head. The head is the base of intelligence, the seat of learning, and there is a powerful longing in Naipaul to be free from the burden of self-consciousness, to live spontaneously, without a sense of history. Those who consider his sense of cultural dislocation a pose have surely not met him. In person, you are aware of how he was marked by his early struggles to establish himself as a writer, by his feelings of difference. Talking to him you can almost sense the pressure building inside his own head, as he attempts to simplify his ideas.

“It has always been difficult for Naipaul,” says Mishra. “There are now flourishing rackets like multiculturalism and it doesn’t take much skill for an Indian writer to be published. It is hard to imagine the struggle someone like Naipaul would have had in the 1950s. So Mr Biswas, which is really the Ramayana of the 20th century colonial world, could arrive and not be recognised as great. People were then talking of Lucky Jim and Under the Net; now they talk of Midnight’s Children, Possession and Earthly Powers, ambitious books, but not possessed of the artistry and emotional power of Mr Biswas.”

The 1950s were the difficult, tormenting years of his career, when he was struggling to establish himself as a writer in London. Born in the village of Chaguanas, Trinidad, in August 1932, Naipaul grew up in an isolated, ritualised Hindu community, the descendants of Uttar Pradesh Brahmins. His father, Seepersad, about whom he wrote with such comic tenderness in his masterpiece, A House for Mr Biswas, was a journalist on the Trinidad Guardian. He was also a frustrated writer, scribbling stories in stolen moments, in the noise and disorder of rural Trinidad.

From the age of 12, Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul knew he had to escape from Trinidad, if he was to succeed. He was, like Seepersad, consumed by the dream of becoming a writer, something he perceived as a glorious, noble calling. In Finding the Centre, his memoir, he writes, “The wish to be a writer didn’t go with a wish or a need actually to write. It went only with the idea I had been given of the writer, a fantasy of nobility. It was something that lay ahead and outside the life I knew-far from family and clan, colony, the Trinidad Guardian and negroes.”

But nothing prepared him for the trauma and suffering writing involves, how it must always come first. Early in life, Naipaul knew he would never be a father: “Children would have come between me and the work.” Yet he felt compelled to go on, even when his first four novels, including Mr Biswas, were ignored, even when he felt that he had no talent. “I had no idea of what the outline of the career would be: how you would have to do another and another book and then you would come to a ditch; and how you would have to cross that ditch and how exhausted you would feel. If I had money, the work wouldn’t have been written. Yet I had to do it.

“I had since the age of 12 said that I was going to turn myself into a writer. I had got this scholarship to Oxford from the colonial government. This would have given me any kind of profession: medicine, the law, engineering. But I associated being a writer with my father, his private strength. I was full of the idea of the grandeur of the calling. Today it is not considered grand at all; it’s all about commerce.”

For most of the 1950s, while discovering his voice, he was dejected and gloomy. “I was destitute. I got no replies from job applications. The BBC laughed me out of court when I asked for a little job in the talks department. The idea of a man like me asking to write for the BBC-absurd! I’m not complaining, you understand. The writer shouldn’t complain.”

The 1950s were a period, too, of sexual yearning. Unknown to his first wife, Patricia Ann Hale, whom he married in 1955 after meeting her at Oxford, Naipaul was visiting prostitutes. Later, there was a mistress, an Anglo-Argentinian, an “immense passion” with whom he had perhaps the first fulfilling sex of his life. He thinks that Pat, who died in 1996, knew about his mistress but not the prostitutes until, in 1993, he made a reference to them in an interview in the New Yorker. “I was a very passionate man… There were many girls who were friendly and I didn’t know how to cope with it. I was untutored. I didn’t know about the physical act of seduction, you see… So I became a big prostitute man.”

He regrets the interview. “It was very bad, very bad of me to have done that; I don’t know why I did. It caused my wife an immense amount of pain. I did not want her to read the piece. I thought I would be able to keep it away from her… But the New Yorker sent out little trailers. My wife got to hear what I said and…” He breaks off, shakes his head. He seems utterly aghast, stunned. “Those little trailers travelled, how they travelled! They even got to India.”

Why did you mention the prostitutes in the interview? “I was overcome by a feeling that I should speak clearly, without ambiguity about things.”

He remembers talking to Pat about Allan Green, who in 1991, when he was the director of public prosecutions, was discovered kerb-crawling in King’s Cross; his wife, Eva, later killed herself. “I said to my wife, ‘I think it is wrong of the wife to overreact like this; his action isn’t a rebuke to her.’ Men and women, er, you know, there is a kind of tedium. But my wife disagreed. She thought it was awful. So I shouldn’t have spoken like this, it was a mistake.

“I’ve still not come to terms with my first wife’s death,” he says, dropping his head. “I gave her a hard time. I still have to come to terms with that. I used to be full of rage and anger. We were poor and young together; I had these great rages which made me ill. I raged at her; and she was very good. It’s something I have to deal with.”

Naipaul carries his suffering like stigmata-Saul Bellow speaks of his “eagle-on-crags-look”; Derek Walcott calls him VS Nightfall. He is now happily married to his second wife Nadira Khannum Alvi, who appears to accept and understand him. “We should not expect great writers to be normal,” she says, bringing us coffee. “I was reading yesterday about the writer Isaac Bashevis Singer and all his sexual peccadilloes; I was shocked, disappointed, but perhaps this is the human cost of the writing life.”

Nadira is a tall, handsome woman, animated in conversation and, like her husband, utterly charming. Before they met, she worked as a journalist in Lahore, writing political and cultural commentary; but now she is protector, amanuensis and keeper of the flame. Their coming together was extraordinary. Naipaul was in Lahore, researching Beyond Belief, when they met at a dinner party. “As I walked in,” Nadira recalls, “someone said that VS Naipaul was in the room. I was thrilled, and walked straight over and kissed him.”

Within three weeks of their meeting, during which they talked and talked about their past lives, Naipaul told Nadira that he loved her and hoped one day to marry her. “My kiss was not some silly, bimbo, fluff-headed thing,” she says, lighting a cigarette. “It was an act of reverence-I loved An Area of Darkness, one of his books on India. I also felt an immense pity for him. He looked so sad, had these terrible black marks on his face.”

since his second marriage, Naipaul has felt more settled. For the first time in many years, certainly since the early death of his beloved brother Shiva, in 1985, Naipaul seems at ease, happy even. His face, once a mask of suffering, still carries traces of his private torment-the scowl, the mournful eyes, the voluptuous, down-turned mouth-but his conversation is full of laughter and mischief. This is not just the slow resignation of old age; it is something more. “Something has happened,” he says. “I don’t know what, I really don’t. My feeling is that the people of England have changed. It’s rather marvellous for a people with such an imperial past to change, but they have. I don’t feel rejected anymore. I feel really quite welcome. Since planting a garden in the Avon Valley, I’ve become concerned with the land, flowers, the changing of the seasons.”

So what of this notion of exile? “No,” he says, “exile is too pretty a word. Can you reframe that?”

“Homelessness?”

“No, that’s wrong-because I have a home.”

“Metaphorically speaking, I meant.”

“No. It’s very simple. It’s not exile, it’s more to do with not being absolutely connected to where I am.”

In An Area of Darkness, the first of three books about India, he writes of his surprise at arriving, for the first time, in his ancestral homeland and finding that he feels faceless, accepted, an unremarkable part of a swirling mass of humanity. In Trinidad and England he had always felt distinctive. “Now in Bombay I entered a shop or a restaurant and waited for a special quality of response. And there was nothing. It was like being denied part of my reality. Again and again I was caught. I was faceless.” The experience led to an acceptance of how much a recognition of his difference was necessary to him, the engine of his work.

VS Naipaul, 66, surveying a long, anguished writing life, feels that he is close to the end. “I have perhaps 60 months left,” he says with forgivable melodrama. He is relieved rather than proud to have pursued no other profession, never to have compromised his youthful vision of the grandeur of the writing life. There were many times when he felt unable to go on, when he was sure he had nothing more to say. But he went on-finding new ways of writing, stretching and breaking narrative boundaries, his prose always fastidious, precise, unadorned. Anyone reading his books is unlikely to forget them. They have an essential originality, a difference. His prejudices-against Islam or Afro-Caribbeans-his tone of wounded indignation and polemical obsessions can infuriate, but the work seldom fails to absorb.

“I’m calmer now, have accepted the transitoriness of one’s presence here,” he says, his voice little more than a shy murmur. “I’m glad I did the work, but not proud of it, no. Gauguin said a nice thing of the dying Vincent Van Gogh: that he was sitting up in bed, smoking his pipe, hating nobody and full of love for his art. That’s the way I feel: full of love for my art. And at ease, at peace, yes.” He allows himself a slight smile.