V.S. Naipal Interviewed – Jonathan Rosen & Tarun Tejpal

V.S. NaipaulFrom The Paris Review 

Sir Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul was born on August 17, 1932 in Chaguanas, Trinidad, where his ancestors had emigrated from India—his maternal grandfather, at the turn of the century, had traveled from that country as an indentured servant.

Naipaul, in his essay “Prologue to an Autobiography” from Finding the Center, has written: “Half a writer’s work . . . is the discovery of his subject. And a problem for me was that my life had been varied, full of upheavals and moves: from grandmother’s Hindu house in the country, still close to the rituals and social ways of village India; to Port of Spain, the negro, and G.I. life of its streets, the other, ordered life of my colonial English school, which is called Queen’s Royal College, and then Oxford, London and the freelances’ room at the BBC. Trying to make a beginning as a writer, I didn’t know where to focus.”

After two failed attempts at novels and three months before his twenty-third birthday, Naipaul found his start in the childhood memory of a neighbor in Port of Spain. The memory provided the first sentence for Miguel Street, which he wrote over six weeks in 1955 in the BBC freelancers’ room at the Langham Hotel, where he was working part-time editing and presenting a literary program for the Caribbean Service. The book would not be published until 1959, after the success of The Mystic Masseur (1957), which received the John Llewellyn Rhys Memorial Prize and The Suffrage of Elvira (1958), which was awarded the Somerset Maugham Award. A House of Mr. Biswas was published in 1961, and in 1971 Naipaul received the Booker Prize for In a Free State. Four novels have appeared since then: Guerrillas (1975), A Bend in the River (1979), The Enigma of Arrival(1987) and A Way in the World. Naipaul received a knighthood in 1990 for his service to literature.

In the early 1960s, Naipaul began writing about his travels. He has written four books on India: The Middle Passage (1962), An Area of Darkness (1964), India: A Wounded Civilization (1977), and India: A Million Mutinies Now (1990). The Return of Eva Peron andThe Killings in Trinidad (published in the same volume in 1980) recorded his experiences in Argentina, Trinidad, and the Congo. Indonesia, Iran, Pakistan, and Malaysia are the subject of Among the Believers: An Islamic Journey (1981). He returned to those countries in 1995; Beyond Belief, an account of those travels, was published this year.

In conversation with Naipaul, one finds the issues and ideas are always highly subtle and complex—which he keeps reminding you, lest you see things only in monochrome—but the language steers clear of obfuscation and cant. Indeed Naipaul can be a difficult companion. The humbleness of his beginnings, the long struggles, the sheer scale of his artistic beginnings clearly have bred in him deep neuroses—at sixty-six, the neurotic circuitry is still buzzing. Despite the edginess, and the slight air of unpredictability it brings into any interaction with him, Naipaul proved to be an interviewer’s delight.

The interview is culled from a series of conversations in New York City and India. Part of the interview was conducted (by Jonathan Rosen) at the Carlyle Hotel on May 16, 1994. Naipaul spent several minutes rearranging the furniture in the hotel suite in an effort to locate the chair best suited to his aching back. He has the habit of removing glasses before answering a question, though that only enhances his scrutinizing expression and attitude of mental vigilance. The occasion for the interview was the publication of A Way in the World, but despite an initial wish to “stay with the book,” Naipaul relaxed into a larger conversation that lasted several hours and touched on many aspects of his life and career. – The Paris Review, 1998

INTERVIEWER

You travel to India often. You first visited thirty-five years ago and keep coming back, both to write and to holiday. What is the source of your continuing fascination with India?

NAIPAUL

It is my ancestry, really, because I was born with a knowledge of the past that ended with my grandparents. I couldn’t go beyond them, the rest was just absolute blankness. It’s really to explore what I call the area of darkness.

INTERVIEWER

Do you think it is crucial to your function and material as a writer to know where you came from and what made you what you are?

NAIPAUL

When you’re like me—born in a place where you don’t know the history, and no one tells you the history, and the history, in fact, doesn’t exist, or in fact exists only in documents—when you are born like that, you have to learn about where you came from. It takes a lot of time. You can’t simply write about the world as though it is all there, all granted to you. If you are a French or an English writer, you are born to a great knowledge of your origins and your culture. When you are born like me, in an agricultural colony far away, you have to learn everything. The writing has been a process of inquiry and learning for me.

INTERVIEWER

You have written three books on India over the last thirty-five years: An Area of Darkness, A Wounded Civilization and A Million Mutinies Now. Your response to the country has varied with each book.

NAIPAUL

Actually, the three books stand. Please understand that I do not want any one to supersede another. All three books stand because I think that they all remain true. The books are written in different modes: one is autobiographical, one is analytical and the last is an account of the people’s experience in that country. They were written at different times, and of course, like India, people exist in different times. So you could say that An Area of Darkness is still there—the analysis of the invasions and defeat, the psychological wound, is still there. With the Mutinies book, in which people are discovering some little voice with which to express their personality and speak of their needs—that remains true. The books have to be taken as a whole—as still existing, still relevant, still important.

In all of this, you must remember that I am a writer—a man writing a paragraph, a chapter, a section, a book. It is a craft. I am not just a man making statements. So the books represent the different stages of my craft. An Area of Darkness is an extraordinary piece of craft—an extraordinary mix of travel and memory and reading. A Million Mutinies Now represents the discovery that the people in the country are important. It’s a very taxing form, in the way that a lot happens during the actual traveling—a lot happens when you meet people. If you don’t know how to talk to them, if you don’t know how to get them to talk to you, there is no book. You use your judgment and your flair. I look at this and then that person, what he says about himself . . . His experiences lead you to consider something else and then something else and so on. The book happens during the actual traveling, although the writing takes time, as always. So the books are different bits of craft—always remember that I am a craftsman, changing the craft; I am trying to do new things all the time.

INTERVIEWER

Do you use a tape recorder when you interview people for your nonfiction?

NAIPAUL

I never use a recorder. It shortens the labor and makes the whole thing more precise—it puts me in control. Also, people find it hard to believe, but an hour and a half with anyone is as much as any text of mine can take.

INTERVIEWER

Do you begin an interview as soon as you meet a person?

NAIPAUL

First I’d meet you and talk to you; then I’d ask to come and see you. In ninety minutes, I can get two or three thousand words. You’ll see me writing by hand and you’ll speak slowly and instinctively. Yet it will be spoken and have the element of speech.

INTERVIEWER

An Area of Darkness suggests a lot of anger, as does much of your journalism about India. Do you think anger works better than understanding for a writer?

NAIPAUL

I don’t like to think of it as journalism—journalism is news, an event that is important today. My kind of writing tries to find a spring, the motives of societies and cultures, especially in India. This is not journalism. Let me correct that—it is not something that anybody can do. It’s a more profound gift. I’m not competing with journalists.

INTERVIEWER

But does anger work better than understanding?

NAIPAUL

I think it isn’t strictly anger alone. It is deep emotion. Without that deep emotion there is almost no writing—then you do journalism. When you are deeply churned up, you know that you cannot express this naked raw emotion; you have to come to some resolution about it. It is this refinement of emotion, what you call understanding, that really makes the writing. These two things are not opposed to one another—understanding derives from what you call anger. I would call it emotion, deep emotion. Emotion is necessary to writing.

INTERVIEWER

I want to ask a question that comes from reading An Area of Darkness. You write about the Hindu idea that the world is illusion, which seems enormously attractive and, at the same time, terrifying to you. I’m wondering if I read that right?

NAIPAUL

I think you put your finger on it. It is both frightening and alluring. People can use it as an excuse for inactivity—when things are really bad and you are in a mess, it can be comforting to possess and enter that little chamber of thought where the world is an illusion. I find it very easy to enter that mode of thinking. It was with me for some weeks before writing A Bend in the River. I had the distinct sense of the world as an illusion—I saw it spinning in space as though I really had imagined it all.

INTERVIEWER

You have been to so many places—India, Iran, West Africa, the American Deep South. Are you still drawn to travel?

NAIPAUL

It gets harder, you know. The trouble is that I can’t go places without writing about them. I feel I’ve missed the experience. I once went to Brazil for ten days and didn’t write anything. Well, I wrote something about Argentina and the Falklands, but I didn’t possess the experience—I didn’t work at it. It just flowed through me. It was a waste of my life. I’m not a holiday taker.

INTERVIEWER

Didn’t Valéry say that the world exists to be put in a book? Do you agree?

NAIPAUL

Or to be thought about, to be contemplated. Then you enjoy it, then it means something. Otherwise you live like a puppy: woof woof, I need my food now, woof woof.

INTERVIEWER

Your new book, Beyond Belief, returns to the subject of Islam, which you also examined in Among the Believers. Do you anticipate any trouble from the prickliness of Islam’s defenders with the book’s publication?

NAIPAUL

People might criticize me, but I am very careful never to criticize a faith or articles of a faith. I am just talking now about the historical and social effects. Of course, all one’s books are criticized, which is how it should be. But remember this is not a book of opinion. This goes back to my earlier point about all one’s work standing together: in the books of exploration that I have been writing, I’ve been working toward a form where, instead of the traveler being more important than the people he travels among, the people are important. I write about the people I meet—I write about their experiences and I define the civilization by their experiences. This is a book of personal experiences, so it will be very difficult to fault in the way you said because you can’t say that it is maligning anything. I looked at personal experiences and made a pattern. In one way, you might simply say that it is a book of stories. It is a book of tales.

INTERVIEWER

Much in the way of A Turn in the South and A Million Mutinies Now?

NAIPAUL

Absolutely, yes. This book was a different challenge because I am very particular about not repeating a form, and here there were thirty narratives, which I tried to do differently—each one differently so that the reader would not understand the violation that was being done him. I didn’t want the stories to read alike.

INTERVIEWER

Are you drained when you finish a book?

NAIPAUL

Yes, one is drained. These careers are so slow—I write a book, and at the end of it I am so tired. Something is wrong with my eyes; I feel I’m going blind. My fingers are so sore that I wrap them in tape. There are all these physical manifestations of a great labor. Then there is a process of just being nothing—utterly vacant. For the past nine months, really, I’ve been vacant.

INTERVIEWER

Does something begin to agitate you to get back to writing?

NAIPAUL

I actually find myself being agitated now. I want to get back to my work.

INTERVIEWER

Do you have a new project in mind?

NAIPAUL

I’m unusual in that I have had a long career. Most people from limited backgrounds write one book. I’m a prose writer. A prose book contains many thousands of sentiments, observations, thoughts—it is a lot of work. The pattern for most people is to do a little thing about their own lives. My career has been other. I found more and more to write. If I had the strength, I probably would do more; there is always more to write about. I just don’t have the energy, the physical capacity. You know, one can spend so many days now being physically wretched. I’m aging badly. I’ve given so much to this career for so long. I spend so much time trying to feel well. One becomes worn out by living, by writing, by thinking.

Have you got enough now?

INTERVIEWER

Yes.

NAIPAUL

Do you think I’ve wasted a bit of myself talking to you?

INTERVIEWER

Not, of course, how I’d put it.

NAIPAUL

You’ll cherish it?

INTERVIEWER

You don’t like interviews.

NAIPAUL

I don’t like them because I think that thoughts are so precious you can talk them away. You can lose them.

» For the complete interview, called “V. S. Naipaul, The Art of Fiction No. 154,” go to The Paris Review here.

One Response

  1. Naipaul is an artist alright. He conveyed in a short period of interview published, the expression of heart. Either it was the interviewer, or the beutiful edit or the interviewee. The fact of the matter is he is articulatively correct in this world of politically correct in everyday life in each profession without discreation of where one needs to be politically correct, to what maximum degree and to what directed untruth, for how long. That the artificiality or restrictions burn the seed of joy subtly and permanently which is why freedom of art or expression is fundamental to an artist or a writer as the case may be. But the illiterate politicians and lawmakers with really low IQs. instead think an agendist artist painting nude divines for personal and pervert pleasure has license to thrill himself.

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