Dhaka, Bangladesh
The gospel according to Naipaul

The gospel according to Naipaul

(from previous issue) A Way In The World is in some ways a reworking of Naipaul's 1969 book, The Loss Of El Dorado, which he now regards as "flawtd'~ It marks a further stage in his drift away from the conventional novel and therefore is bound to be seen by the admirers of his earlier satiric work as a failure of imagination, or evidence of simple exhaustion. "When the strength for fiction fails the writer,~' Salman Rushdie wrote disapprovingly of Nai~ paul's last novel, reviewing it in The Guardian, "what remains is autobiography." You wouldn't expect Naipaul, an enemy of iznaglc realism, to agree with this, and of course he doesn't. "I think it is possible that talent has moved to other things;' he says, "and that real writing is occurring elsewhere, rather than in novels. You have to be very clear about the material that possesses you, and you've got to find the correct form for it. You can't borrow somebody else's form, otherwise you can easily end up with absurdities like, shall we say, the story of a New Guinea chieftain cast in the form of a George Eliot narrative. One narrative goes with a parricul'ar kind of life, a particular moment in history; another narrative comes at another time, and you have to find the correct one. The one that feels true to you. Not the one that they teach you about. The minute that you can be taught about something, you know it's normal. All writing has to be new. Naipaul hss never tnjoyed a big commercial success, and his financial situation has in the past obliged him to take up university teaching positions abroad. Paul Theroux has written a very funny account of Naipaul at the University of Kampala in Uganda, in 1966: "He never gave a lecture; I don't think he set foot in the department, and cowards the end of his term he moved into a hotel in wesrem Kenya." He was asked to judge a literary competition. None of the entries was good enough for the first or second prize; the single winner got third prize. "I'm sure your gifts lie in another direction;' Naipaul told her, "but you have wonderful handwriting?' "He was simply the worst, most closed-minded, inconsiderate, uninteresting and incompetent professor I have ever met," one of his students at Wealcyan, the East Coast American liberal arts college, complained at the end of his term in 1979. "Bogus students taking bogus courses in bogus writing. I would take poison 56 rather than do this for a living;' Naipaul replied. He made his mark as a legendanly brutal book cn tic for the New Statesman in the mid-1950s, but gave it up after a year. "Very severe, yes. But did I criticise anything that has survived? No. No. I was just expressing my boredom and my irritation with the rubbish that was being churned out, you know? I understood it was a waste of my time to be reviewing these bad books. I enjoyed the discipline of writing 1000 words to amuse the readers of the New Statesman. Working our a way. I was a child, trying to learn to write. And it didn't work the first two or three times. But then they sent me a batch of novels and it all just clicked. The words just sang out, and I telr very content This happened in about 1957. 1 was very happy. I was developing a skill. Now I wouldn't write reviews. I admire the people who do. They must give so much to it?' The consensus, on the evidence of his recent books, is that Naipaul is becoming more 'compassionate" (a word that, predictably, he holds in contempt), as he ages. And there is a sentence on the final page of A Way In The World which would appear to support this view. Naipaul is talking about a French journalist "bluffing his way through" an interview in a Paris restaurant. In the old days he would have skewered this person. Now, though, he describes him simply as "overworked'. "It was a sentence of pure satire," Naipaul agrees, "then I made it a very humane sentence. I thought about it and I used that one word and that one word brings about the stress of Paris for all these people; all the French people who work in Paris are very stressed, the pressures are very strong. The poor waiters..?' How different from the Naipaul of 1962, who stormed our of a television interview after he decided the man interviewing him was underprepared. "I thought it was intolerable. I couldn't talk to this fellow. I didn't want to. It was appalling. If an interview is to be done shoddily, and people are bluffing their way through it, it's of no value. The work is of no value. Things matter only when they are done well. The filling of the time, that's all that's happening. People go to these conferences, and nothing happens there, but it's no joke because they treat themselves rather shabbily. It's a ahabby attitude to what you do. How can I... how can I... how can I misuse my mind? I know they say, you see, that you've got to go on these tours now and things like that. Nothing like that happened when I began. And walking our as I did didn't affect the book at all. The book is quite a well-known book. The book looked after itself. I always used to tell people who were admirers of my work in the United States, and who had trouble even getting me published, that they mustn't worry; the books would have to look after themselves. I don't think I ever promoted anything. In fact I think I'm actually very bad for my work" To this point Naipaul has been friendly, polite; there have been only occasional glimpses of his spikier side. But then I confess that I found the deep history sections of A Way In The World - the Raleigh section, the Miranda section - rather heavy going, and there is a subtle but perceptible change. "You probably tried to read it too fast," Naipaul says shortly. "It's all right if you take it slowly. You can't read it fast. Perhaps 30 or 40 pages at a time. This book is written at the rate at which I read. The paragraphs are rather easily done, but they're dense. It isn't that the man is going to sit down at the table in the first line and order the Coca-Cola at the end of the page and that's all you're getting there. The paragraph is a richer occasion, and to read 30 rich pages at a great rate is to miss a lot of what has actually been created for you?' Pause. "An immense amount has been created?' He excuses himself and disappears downstairs. I have been told to leave lunch open in case he wants to carry this on. I hear him asking his wife to book a table at the Bombay Brasserie for himself and two other people, neither of whom is me. We make conversation for a while, and then he says: "It took me six months to write Miranda. Six months! The actual writing. And I'm still tired ftom it. I just felt transported with the writing. That story suffuses me. All those bits of speeches that you can't disentangle one from the othet, they go through my head all the time. It still goes through me. I felt it a little with the Raleigh as well. A sensation I last felt 25 years ago - more than that: 35 years, when I was writing Biawas. I discovered it at that point?' He stands up; sirs down. "The historical sections are connected in very many ways to all the surrounding matter. But you'll see that on a second reading. On a slower reading." I ask him about the "looker" thing; about where he has chosen to position himself with regard to society; about whether he has ever felt anything other than "disengaged"~ "I don't know how else to live. I think that's how one lives, esirely. That's the best way of living, isn't it? Otherwise you'd be consumed all the time. It's like grief. You can feel grief over two or three people in the world. You can't grieve for more people than that who die, and to pretend that you do is fraudulent. I think I'm engaged sufficiently with the work; with the writing?' Naipaul's brother, Shiva, who was 12 years younger and also a writer, died in 1985 at the age of 40. "I saw very little of him;' lie says when I mention this. "He stayed away." Then, "I loved him. And I drew strength from that - that there was another person in the world absolutely sharing one's background and being understanding. Yes, I felt quite strengthened by it. And my grief is undiminished at his death. I felt intense grief. 1-us death has been the biggest grief in my life, exceeding the grief I felt when my father died. "I measure things by the date of his death: He wasn't dead yet or, yes, he'd died then. I should have paid more... Nobody told me about brothers and siblings generally. I wish I had known a bit more. I assumed all emotions were reciprocated; if you liked people, they would like you hack... But it's a great grief. I think about it constantly. I grieve for the child I left when he was five years old. That's how old he was when I left home in Trinidad, and things were then rotten for our family. We were all helpless. I feel sorry for all that. This intense grief is like the grief of a father for a son. It's very profound. You learn to live with it, and I think what happens is that the grief is still there, but it turns to love in your heart and then it becomes really a personal possession. There is loss, but your heart has expanded..?' Naipaul once said that most people are interesting for an hour. We have been together for nearly three. He remains fastidious. "Have we dished it up, d'you think?"

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