Reading and Writing etc

From Reading and Writing: A Personal Account" by V.S. Naipaul

"How does a writer pass from the fantasy to the ambition to the act of writing? In this essay of literary autobiography, V.S. Naipaul sifts through memories of his childhood in Trinidad, his university days in England and his responses to his family's native India, seeking the experiences of life and literature that shaped his imagination and reflecting on the very different possibilities that he found in the novel and the travel book for capturing the truth of his subjects.

As a child trying to read, I had felt that two worlds separated me from the books that were offered to me at school and in the libraries: the childhood world if our remembered India, and the more colonial world of our city ? What I didn't know, even after I had written my early books of fiction ? was that those two spheres of darkness had become my subject. Fiction, working its mysteries, by indirections finding directions out, had led me to my subject. But it couldn't take me all the way."

The Writer-to-Be and His Mentor

LONDON -- V. S. Naipaul has a new book, "Between Father and Son: Family Letters," and, in what may be a first for an author, he has not read it, and, at least for the present, he has no intention of reading it. As he explained in a recent interview here, the reason he is maintaining such a distance from the book is personal rather than critical.
"I don't ever want to relive those years," Mr. Naipaul said. "They were too wretched." For him, it was a period of "double dislocation" and "double destitution." A young man of Indian descent born in Trinidad, he was newly arrived in England, in need of money and determined to become a writer, but with nothing to demonstrate that he could fulfill that ambition.
He permitted publication of the letters, he said, because "in addition to what they say about our family circumstances, they are a cultural record of an immigrant community moving into a new world over a couple of generations." They also serve as a kind of memoir, showing the evolution of an artist transplanted into an alien environment. It was only in England that he began to discover himself as a writer.

Looking back at that period, Mr. Naipaul, who is 67, said: "My
own state of mind in 1952 was pretty bad.

"For a long time my heart was so full of love for the members of my family. That kept me going, but it was a kind of wound as well because I could do nothing for them." The letters, he said, were irregular: "They give an illusion of continuity where the reality is full of emotional upheaval." As he talked, it was clear that he remembered the basic content of the letters and how important they were to him.

The core of the correspondence is the relationship between father and son. Seepersad Naipaul was a writer, working for a time as a journalist in Trinidad and also writing short stories. At one point, his father suggested that they do a book together, to be called "Letters Between a Father and Son."

Each encouraged the other's writing. In 1950 Seepersad Naipaul wrote to his son, with no justification except his paternal fidelity, "I have no doubt whatever that you will be a great writer." On the other hand, the son was torn by crosscurrents of confidence and insecurity, writing to his older sister, "I am going to be either a big success or an unheard-of failure."

"I thought somehow the gift was going to descend down to me," he said. "Then I discovered I had to work at it." The letters offer proof that despite his own doubts, the younger Naipaul always possessed creative talent and that his father, though unrecognized, was himself a perceptive writer -- and mentor.
With an intellectual acuity that belied the limits of his education, his father frequently gave him advice on writing. For example, he said that if you say exactly what you want to say, "you will have achieved style." When that passage was mentioned to him, Mr. Naipaul agreed with his father: "In my own practice, I always avoided style. To me, it is simply getting at what you mean, and that takes a lot of refining, because words can be deceptive." The elder Naipaul also admonished him to "keep your center," an idea that was to echo through his son's work.

About his father's stories, he said: "If they had contained an element of untruth, I would not have cared for them. I think they mattered to me because they gave me this picture of our community. Without that picture, I would not have known who we were. One was already in a historical void in a place like Trinidad."
His father was not an active part of his life until the boy was 6 or 7. As one of a large family, he was boarded out and lived in his grandmother's house during his childhood. When they began seeing each other regularly, the father would read his stories aloud, and "they acquired an element of the fairy tale." The son's wish to write came from his reading, mostly of English authors (Shakespeare and Dickens), and from the model of his father. As Mr. Naipaul wrote in his recent essay, "Reading and Writing," it was "less a true ambition than a form of self-esteem, a dream of release, an idea of nobility."

The letters deal passingly -- and often comically -- with his days at Oxford, for example, with his brief attempt to be a coxswain on a rowing crew. Such events made him aware of things he could not do: "The nature of one's life meant that one wrote in a funny way about things that were not funny in real life."
At 18 he wrote his first novel, "The Shadow'd Livery." "It was," he said, "heavily dependent on Evelyn Waugh, but the idea was my own -- a kind of farce on an important subject," a black man in Trinidad who tries to turn himself into a king. After the book was rejected by a publisher, it was jettisoned. He sank into a depression that lasted about a year.. Then he wrote a second novel, a "more personal, foolish book" -- also unpublished.
In October 1953 his father died (at 47) in Trinidad. Partly because he was short of money, Mr. Naipaul did not return home for the funeral. Somehow, despite his love for his father, the death acted as a release. Less than two years later, he began writing with a new seriousness of purpose and a clearer point of identity.
The breakthrough came suddenly, while he was writing the stories that later appeared in his book "Miguel Street." From his perspective, those early stories got better and better: "There was a moment, almost an hour, in which I began to be a writer. Somehow I found the right tone, and the tone released the material, and it all came together, and I could see my way ahead."
In quick succession he wrote "Miguel Street" and the novel "The Mystic Masseur." Both were accepted for publication, and he sent a cable home with the news. In 1956 he returned to Trinidad for the first time -- and it was not a happy homecoming.
"It was a tormenting time for me," he said. Nothing had yet been published. "The family situation was desperate. I was unhappy, hour by hour." After returning to England, he began writing "A House for Mr. Biswas," his first masterpiece (published in 1961), and "a lot of the emotional charge of that book" came from that visit to Trinidad.
Many years earlier his father had suggested that he use him as a character in his fiction. "I remember that letter," said Mr. Naipaul. "He says, settle down and write, think of a character, make me a character, begin it like this." After his father's death he did precisely that, using him as the inspiration for Mr. Biswas.

"In the myth," he said, "having written two books, the young writer should be taken up to the skies. In reality, having written two books, the young writer remained firmly on the ground. Because the books were not published until later, I was drained, and I began to play with this idea: a man tells his life and it's in terms of things which he's acquired, simple things, but in his own eyes, very big things." After the start, he was blocked, but kept writing and finally after seven months, "there came a light."
From the beginning, he intended "to cannibalize" one of his father's stories, published in the posthumous 1976 collection "The Adventures of Gurudeva." Anand, Mr. Biswas's son, is a combination of the author and his younger brother, Shiva, who later became a novelist.

Comparing his father with Mr. Biswas, Mr. Naipaul said: "My father was a profounder man in every way. And his wounds are deeper than the other man can say. It's based on him, but it couldn't be the real man." He said he felt he had inherited his sense of comedy from his father, and added that others have said that he had his mother's tenaciousness.
Before and after his artistic breakthrough, Mr. Naipaul read all his work aloud to Patricia Hale, whom he had met at Oxford and who later became his wife. He recalled, "For three years, from 1952 to 1955, all I read to her was rubbish. She gave her response and it was very valuable. When things are going badly, you need someone to point out what was good" -- and worth saving. "I trusted her. I read everything to Pat, for her approval, even a few days before she died" (in 1995). He said that his relationship with her and with his father had been the deepest ones in his life.
After his father died, Mr. Naipaul wrote to his mother, "What we are he has made of us." Several weeks later, he added, "In a way I had always looked upon my life as a continuation of his -- a continuation which, I hoped, would also be a fulfillment."

When that letter was quoted to him, he said, "Neither I nor my father could have known where the writing was going to lead one, in terms of the intellectual adventure. I don't think I had any idea at the beginning that I was going to be writing about colonialism, the New World, slavery and revolution -- and about India."

His career has led him to write 23 books, from his early comic novels to the richly textured dramatic chronicles of "Mr. Biswas" and "A Bend in the River," and includes transformative returns to India, a confrontation with Islam and his later novelistic contemplations of his place, and way, in the world, as in "The Enigma of Arrival."
He continued: "The reason why my father would not have been able to understand where I would eventually go is that the nature of your society conditions the kind of writing you can do about it. There are certain societies where intellectual adventure, social adventure, is necessarily limited," as in Trinidad.
To the question of how he became a writer, he said, "For me there was always an element of desperation." With him, more than anything, it was the will to be a writer, the innocence in believing that someone from his background could be a writer and "the idea of the presence of my father -- I always knew that regardless of our circumstances that he was a noble man."

When Mr. Naipaul comes to New York, he will read at the 92nd Street Y (on Jan. 24), but not from his new book. Instead he will draw upon his other writings. The book of letters remains something apart from him. Any day a package of copies sent by his publisher will arrive at his home in Wiltshire, where he lives with his second wife, Nadira. In all probability the package will remain unopened.

Thinking about the book and the memories it would evoke, he said, "I wonder if I will have enough courage to read it."

[Credit: Article publisehd, January 5, 2000.]

'Literary Occasions': The Critical Is Personal

What a pleasure it is to read V. S. Naipaul's collection of personal and critical essays, variously published over almost 40 years and culminating in ''Two Worlds,'' his Nobel lecture of 2001. The essays themselves are largely meditations on writing and literature, evolving from Naipaul's own experience -- his background and history, his development as a writer and his observations as a reader. Quite often they overlap, the same subject matter turning up in two or three different places. And usually they do so to effect, shifting the perspective slightly, complicating the significance of the whole.
Here, for instance, is Naipaul on the subject of his early ambitions:
''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.''
''My father worshiped writing and writers. He made the vocation of the writer seem the noblest in the world; and I decided to be that noble thing.''
''I couldn't truly call myself a reader. I had never had the capacity to lose myself in a book; like my father, I could read only in little bits . . . I hadn't begun to think in any concrete way about what I might write. Yet I continued to think of myself as a writer.''
Naipaul's story itself is deeply rooted in the story of his father. In many ways, ''Literary Occasions'' is a testament to their shared love affair with language. Naipaul's father was a journalist. He also published a collection of short stories (''I read every new typescript my father made as the story grew. It was the greatest imaginative experience of my childhood''). Father and son also shared a sort of hysteria -- a nervous illness that in the father had shown up as a ''fear of extinction'' and in the son as ''a panic about failing to be what I should be'' (''I was eaten up with anxiety. It was the emotion I felt I had always known'').  

In a sense, it was the circumscription of his father's life that fed Naipaul's own urgent need to escape Trinidad (''To become a writer, that noble thing, I had thought it necessary to leave. Actually to write, it was necessary to go back. It was the beginning of self-knowledge''). Again and again he considers the small escapes that his father made, the failures that followed, and the despair. He writes of the limitations of village life, of Trinidad's Indians and of the loss of India itself in the diaspora. He writes too of his grandparents, who came to Trinidad from India, of the sad history of Trinidad's aboriginal peoples and of the island's cruel colonial history. And to all this he brings an exacting eye and a sort of broad philosophical despair. But never does he descend to the odious singsong of the self-righteous. He is far too honest a man, too independent a thinker and too intelligent a writer for that sort of thing.

In many ways it is as if Naipaul cannot get over having left Trinidad in the first place, or having managed to stay afloat through all the years of struggle in London while he was establishing himself as a writer. The hard-won success that followed is not nearly as mysterious to him: it was worked for; it was earned. And this is clearly a matter of fierce pride. In book after book, Naipaul is described as having ''followed no other profession'' than that of writer (at least one unhappy stint in the academy notwithstanding). The essays in this volume go a long way toward explaining this pride and this refusal.

And yet never is the prose self-inflating. One of Naipaul's most endearing qualities is his unfailing impulse toward honesty. It is manifested in the intelligent candor with which he lays bare his subjects, never excepting himself. The writing itself is a wonder of clarity, complex ideas given shape in simple English, and achieving that most difficult of tasks -- having writer and reader seem simultaneously to be making the same journey. With consummate skill, Naipaul will introduce a character or a scene, leave it behind for 20 pages or so while he takes off in a different direction, return to it to add a few more brushstrokes, and then, somehow, after several such loops, arrive at the complete picture with the reader still at his side. It is a masterly game of cat's cradle.

Behind the work -- fueling it in a way -- is a quality of what one might call rage. It is the sort of impulse, the sort of uncompromising urge, to get at the truth through language that informs so much of what is excellent and enduring in literature. ''I could see the young Tolstoy moving, as if out of need, to the discovery of fiction: starting as a careful descriptive writer . . . and then, as though seeing an easier and a better way of dealing with the horrors of the Sebastopol siege, doing a simple fiction, setting characters in motion, and bringing the reality closer.''

Inevitably, some of the pieces in this volume shine less brightly. After the wonders of the prologue (''Reading and Writing, a Personal Account'') and Part 1 -- essays written largely around himself, his father, their history in Trinidad, their love affair with words -- Part 2, which contains literary essays on other subjects, seems to alter the tone and thrust of the collection. And yet there are gems to be found here, too. In a fraction of a paragraph on Kipling, for instance, Naipaul manages to distill what other writers would extrude into a full-length volume: ''The club-writer always needed the club, the common points of reference; he needed the legend, which perhaps his own stories had helped to create. . . . A story by Chekhov is complete in itself; a story by Kipling isn't.''

Two of the shorter essays in Part 1 (''Jasmine'' and ''East Indian'') contain subject matter that is more fully realized (rather than advanced) in ''Two Worlds,'' the beautiful and moving Nobel speech that reads rather like an elegy. And there are puzzles. In his essay on Conrad, for instance, which was published in 1974, Naipaul declares, ''The novel as a form no longer carries conviction'' -- an idea he reiterates elsewhere. And yet he himself continued to write and publish novels over the next 30 years. Why? One wishes that he would address this anomaly.

Still, these are all small quibbles, only able to be made by comparison with the ideal. No other living writer is able as brilliantly as V. S. Naipaul both to clarify and to enhance the mystery of writing. And yet ''Literary Occasions'' constitutes anything but a fairy tale of success. Rather, it is a complex testament not only to the struggle of one man against great odds to be ''that noble thing,'' but also to the
place and purpose of the writer in the world: the ''triumph over darkness.''

Photo:Naipaul outside at his Salisbury home in 2001 after he had won the Noble Peace Prize.

[Credit: The New York Times, January 5, 2004.]

© 2001