What can writing do that nothing else can? Sir VS Naipaul in conversation with Tarun J Tejpal
Tarun J Tejpal (Moderator): Writers like me learnt how to use the English language with power, with precision, with eloquence by reading Naipaul. Before Vidia Naipaul was 30, he had written four novels, including what is considered one of the masterpieces of 20th century literature, A House for Mr Biswas. I remember once speaking to him many years ago. He said that till he was 45, he continued to live in a state of great financial anxiety about writing. I want to put that in perspective [at] a time when writers write a single book and expect to make crores of rupees.
When Naipaul is called a writer’s writer, what is meant is that even writers read Naipaul to understand how to convey very complex ideas in lucid prose. So I am going to try to extract from him some thoughts about writing. That is what we are universally interested in — the art of fiction and non-fiction — in the future of these two genres, the future of longform writing and a little bit about his oeuvre on India.
TJT: Could you tell us about the journey of discovering writing and finding the voice? Coming from Trinidad in the 1950s, when there was no such thing as colonial writing in the English language, how did you arrive at the material? And how did you arrive at a voice that allowed you to deal with the material?
VS NAIPAUL (VSN): One reason would be that I didn’t know about that problem. I just wanted to write the books. After writing the books came the understanding of the material. After which, how to go on was quite a problem. As you said, there are many writers who write a book or two and then fall silent. I was worried about that happening to me. I remember, after I had done a very big book, it was in 1960-61, when I was coming to India for the first time, I had a panic about that very thing. About not being able to go on. And it took the concrete form of the feeling of losing my voice, losing the gift of speech. It’s a terrible thing. But if you’re a writer, you do the one book, then you have to go on to do the second, and then the third… It never ends. At the age of nearly 80, I am still tormented by this need to go on a little bit more… So perhaps a lot of the discoveries about the nature of writing came to me from this need to go on.
TJT: You once said your first impulse for writing sucked out of your father’s own idea of writing as a noble vocation. As of now, your oeuvre consists of 30 books — 15 fiction and 15 non-fiction. When you started writing, did you figure the idea of nobility as a vocation that underpins writing?
VSN: Things always change. So it is modified now. The idea of nobility has been subsumed in the idea of going on. But to write the next book always means you have to dig deep into yourself, to find this material, to come up with what is true to you and the material. Writing has to stand on its own, it has to be judged for its moral quality — in the sense, when you look at the world, you look at it without prejudice, you look at it seeking to find out the essence of any situation rather than going for the quick view, the quick fix.
TJT: Most of the material, at least in nonfiction, comes from the place that you try to excavate yourself. Ideological baggage is absent in the enquiry. And the enquiry, if I may say so, is almost scientific in its approach. Is it something you have had to train yourself to do or is it something that came naturally?
VSN: I’d say it is practice. I turned to non-fiction quite early. The primary impulse was being asked, by the prime minister of Trinidad, to make a journey of the Caribbean and British South America to see what had happened to the slave societies. I was excited by the idea of free travel and agreed. I didn’t understand till I was deep in the writing that writing a book of non-fiction was quite different from fiction.
TJT: We are referring here to the Middle Passage, which was his fifth book and first book of non-fiction.
VSN: I believe to be a good traveller, one shouldn’t read books about the place beforehand. I think you should go blank and let the place have an impact on you. Out of that impact, you must try to dissect various motifs.
TJT: You are easily the best listener I have seen in my life. I have seen you sit socially and only ask a few questions. How do you meet people, and how do you mine them for the material you need?
VSN: It is such a matter of luck, the meeting. You’ve got to have contacts, but you mustn’t depend on them when you go overseas. I had two small notebooks: one in my top breast pocket, another in the side pocket. The one that people saw was the one in the side pocket. I would begin to talk to someone and not make notes. If I found it interesting, I would tell the person, “I am very interested in what you are saying. But I haven’t made any notes. I would like to come back and talk to you again.” What would happen is that at the second meeting, I would be writing it in long hand, because I don’t have short hand and I don’t have a tape recorder. He or she would begin to talk more slowly. And interestingly, although it was artificial at that level, everything in that meeting would later have a feeling of an actuality, it would sound real. It would sound as though the person was actually talking for the first time. That is one thing I learnt to do.
Also, you have to feel that what you are writing will be interesting after 20 years. Fix it like that in your head. It helps you gauge what is important and what is not. It is not easy to give tips — you have to trust your intuition, your moral judgement.
TJT: What was it that led you from what one imagines as the obvious and visceral power of literature, namely fiction, to struggling with these modes of non-fiction?
VSN: At a very early stage, I felt I was coming to an end of the material I carried within me. By that I mean the childhood stuff, the stuff of the landscape I was born in. In order to be a writer, I didn’t just want to write one book. I wanted my name to be on a lot of books on the shelves. Essentially, my urge came from this old idea of wishing to go on. Not wishing, needing to go on as a writer. Because if I didn’t go on, I wouldn’t be a writer.
TJT: Let’s quickly talk a little bit about the three India books — An Area of Darkness in 1964, India: A Wounded Civilisation in 1977 and India: A Million Mutinies Now in 1989. What was the experience of each book and does it still hold fast and true for you — the experience and what you discovered?
VSN: Yes. People felt that the books are stages in the life of a country, whereas actually they were stages in the life of a writer. If you write one book, then you go back to look at the same place, which has very roughly the same kind of material, the temptation is strong to repeat. But I never liked repeating. So I have always tried to go on and do something else. So, some reviewers said, “Hello, what has happened to the India of the first book? Where is all the unpleasantness gone to?” I have to say, I did that, I can’t do that again. I have been fortunate the books are still around. The first book about India will soon be 50 years old. There’s Tarun talking about it, as if it came out five years ago. It’s half a lifetime ago. So these are books now which you don’t criticise or review, except in a profound way.
TJT: Tell us about India: A Million Mutinies. The experience of spotting that India was about to change in a huge way. What gave you a clear sense of that?
VSN: Little things, like seeing that the people I knew had servants whose children were being educated. And so if you went into one particular family, you saw a generation or two coming along. If people are being educated, it has a cumulative effect. It doesn’t occur right away but it builds up and there we are, and I saw it.
“I’d be very unhappy if someone decided to go to a university. It would take 10 years after that for people to become themselves”
Sir VS Naipaul
TJT: Once very famously — and you can correct me if I’m quoting it wrong — you said that this is probably 30 years ago and very prophetic, like much of your writing has been. You said that the best talent in the future would not go to writing but would go to cinema. Is that true? Is that what you’re saying?
VSN: Yes, I was feeling very unhappy at this stage about not being able to go to Goa and rather jealous of people who were in this more exciting business of making films. And I think it’s possible. It is possible that writing, putting words on paper to be printed is not as important as the contemporary style of getting films out.
TJT: Would you see that as a great loss? The decline of the long-form narrative, the decline of the long written work. Is that going to be a great loss civilisationally?
VSN: No, no, no. The thing about literature and all the art forms that we know is that it’s part of a developing process. The novel, what you call the long form, began with — let’s abbreviate history a little — Dickens in 1836 or thereabouts. A 100 years later, you couldn’t write books like Dickens, you’d have to do other things and I don’t think anyone, not even someone in India would want to do a Dickensian novel. I made a joke about Dickens a long time ago: I said Dickens died young, he was killed by the Dickensian novel. It could easily happen with people from here if they wish to do the Dickensian novel.
TJT: Two last questions. One is the first four novels are extremely humorous; there’s a very strong comical element to them. Miguel Street, The Mystic Masseur,The Suffrage of Elvira and even A House for Mr Biswas —it has a very strong tone of black humour. This becomes less and less as the books go on. Was that reflective of the writer’s experience of the world or did the comic element become a literary device that no longer worked for you?
VSN: There’s comedy in comedy. The comedy of the early books had a very verbal comedy — it’s made in a line. There’s another kind of comedy that requires time and space to be amplified. And I think that kind of comedy still exists in the later works but you have to work harder for them.
TJT: Finally, there is this incredible story about Ludwig Wittgenstein. The world’s greatest living philosopher meets the wife of GE Moore, another philosopher. She tells him she works in a jam factory. Wittgenstein is delighted — he has not been so delighted in a long time. It’s a real job. He tells his students: don’t go to the university, don’t study any more philosophy and don’t teach philosophy. What is it about the work ethic and the academic life that kind of doesn’t work for you?
VSN: I must tread very carefully there, I don’t want to mislead people. If I had to teach someone or superintend their teaching, I’d be very unhappy if they decided to go to a university because it would take 10 years after that for people to become themselves (applause). Well, look at that: I’ve touched a chord. I’ve seen many bright children going to the sixth form or its equivalent and then striving to be what their teachers or school want them to be. They lose their originality, they lose their way of expressing themselves naturally and they become mimics. They become like people who exist in great numbers outside. I think that is the main thing I was concerned about.
TJT: And your obvious fascination for people who work with their hands. I’ve seen you in my own house get wrapped up in conversation with people who work with their hand and make many enquiries. What is it about that? Is it because it’s not exactly what you do or is it something else?
VSN: I’m a writer. I am interested in everyone and everything and I like to see and feel the world through other people, something I’ve always done since I was a child. I’ve tried to look at the world through the eyes of the man or woman I was with.
TJT: Before I can close this session, I have to tell you a great story that was narrated not by Vidia Naipaul but by Paul Theroux who writes about it in his book. Vidia Naipaul and Paul Theroux spent some time together in a Uganda campus in the mid-1960s and there was a poetry competition organised by the university. Vidia Naipaul was made the judge for the poetry competition and Vidia then would have been 31 or 32 years old. So when the competition prize had to be announced and there was a hall as big as this and all these poets had written these poems. They were all sitting there and the announcement was made that there was no first prize, no second prize but there was a third prize. And when the person came to take his third prize from Naipaul, he said, “Before I give it to you my friend, you have to promise me one thing. You have to promise me that you will stop writing poetry.” For me it’s always a great privilege to get time with him, to speak to him. It’s always very illuminating and unlike a lot of controversies that float around about things he may have said, I always tell people, “Read the books, everything that VS Naipaul is, is in the books.” The books are written without any blandishments, the books are written without any real prejudices, the books are written without cheque books, without second-guessing publishers and I can tell you there are very few writers working in the contemporary world, and I know way too many of them, far more than any sane man should. There are very few writers working who have the integrity to the art form that Naipaul has.