May 27 2015
One of the world’s most controversial and famous of writers graced the Jaipur Literature Festival in London at the Southbank Centre as part of the Alchemy Festival, as he had done at the real JLF earlier this year, but he was in a more combative mood, it appears…
BY Chitra Mogul
SIR VS NAIPAUL categorically ruled out that any writer had influenced his writing in response to a question from author and critic Farrukh Dhondy during a rambling, but ultimately illuminating discussion on ‘The writer and his world’ at The JLF Alchemy festival in London.
“It sounds very arrogant to say but I am my own man. I have done the work, I have done out of my own brain, and that’s the way it was,” he stated.
The 82-year-old Nobel Laureate was wheeled onstage by his wife Lady Nadira Naipaul, who thereafter hovered in the wings keeping a protective eye on the proceedings.
However, even with old friend Dhondy, and as moderator to gently prod his memory along, Naipaul took a while to warm up but did eventually deliver some insights into the writing process and revealed flashes of the crusty persona for which he is celebrated or denigrated, depending on your viewpoint.
Dhondy said that he couldn’t see any influences of other authors that Naipaul had admired, including Joseph Conrad, in Naipaul’s work.
“The trouble about Conrad was that I wrote a piece about him and everyone fell on it and saw it as a starting point for myself, but it wasn’t,” said Naipaul. “I used to find Conrad very difficult when I was beginning to read and write.”
He then dismissed the subject, adding:”To go into that would divert from the topic at hand”.
Naipaul penned an article in the ‘The New Yorker’ in 1974 in which he mentioned how as a boy of 10, how his father had read him a short story by Conrad that had made an impression on him.
He acknowledged his great admiration for French author, Guy de Maupassant and his well known derision for Jane Austen.
“Maupassant was an extraordinary writer. We’ll leave Jane Austen alone,” he said drawing laughter.
It was a reference to what have been labelled misogynistic remarks in the past about how no woman writer is a match for him.
The recent controversy over Hanif Kureishi’s novel “The Last Word” being based on Naipaul came up briefly. Nadira Naipaul clarified that Hanif Kureishi had sent them chapters of the book as he was writing it and hence the content had not been a surprise to them. Kureishi had assured them it was not about Naipaul and they had seen no reason to disbelieve him.
Dhondy briefly discussed Naipaul’s Trinidadian roots and how his grandparents had migrated to the West Indies as indentured workers from India.
Naipaul’s earliest inspiration to be a writer came from his father who was a journalist. He later won a scholarship to study at Oxford. Speaking briefly and reluctantly about his days at BBC worldwide radio, he said he did low-level regional work that “gave him no idea of literature. So in a way it didn’t feed me”.
He struggled to complete his first manuscript and asked a fellow contributor for his opinion. He was advised to abandon his efforts and that turned out to be the starting point.
“Those were dark days for me,” he said.
Eventually after much soul-searching he decided to write about his own background.
“That’s a difficult thing to do. You don’t reveal these facts about yourself so readily. But I did do that and that’s how it all began. It all arose out of gloom and despair. Once you understand that, you get a true idea of a writer’s life,” he explained.
“Mystic Masseur” was to be the first book he published if not the first book he wrote. It was published by Andre Deutsch in 1957 and was made into a film by Merchant Ivory in 2001 starring Jimi Mistry, Zohra Sehgal and Om Puri.
“Miguel Street” was a book of short comedic stories based in Trinidad which won the 1961 Somerset Maugham Award.
Naipaul went on to write over 30 works but he won acclaim and endeared himself to many, with “A House For Mr Biswas” (1961).
Deutsch gave him an advance of £500 to visit India and live there for a year which resulted in another work, “An Area of Darkness” (1964).
Dhondy observed that the book offended a number of people though Naipaul’s comments had seemed like obvious truths (to its author).
“I had to write the book, “replied Naipaul. “You have to make sense of the adventure.”
Dhondy pointed out that in his second book about India, “India – A wounded Civilisation“(1977), Naipaul had written that the central literary tradition of India was not its novelists and poets but its politicians, principally Mahatma Gandhi.
Naipaul spoke about the inspiration behind his many books on Africa including the well known “A Bend in the River” (1979). He had a lightbulb moment when he was visiting Kinshasa and felt a sense of recognition and connection going back to his Trinidadian roots.
“One day I saw a train coming from outside the capital city with African workers. A strange thing happened – I felt I knew who these people were. That was a great unlocking,” he said.
His journeys through Malaysia, Indonesia and Iraq were the subject of his books about the Islamic world and revolution.
“They are books of exploration. They are not books by a man who knew the world. It was about a man trying to work out what he had seen.”
A member of the audience asked if he had any happy memories of writing.
“No, no, I can’t think of anything good about it,” answered Naipaul.
Dhondy mentioned how he was in India when he heard Naipaul had been awarded the 2001 Nobel Prize for Literature. He rang Naipaul who insisted on taking the call despite the media at his doorstep.
“Farrukh, I see you have heard of my little spot of good luck!” said the man who has been described by critics as the author of the best novel of the 20th century (“A House for Mr Biswas“).
Naipaul said it took him a long time to agree to having his painting displayed in the National Portrait Gallery but didn’t elaborate as to the reasons why. It was commissioned in 2009 as part of the BP First Prize award and painted by Paul Emsley.
The discussion ended with a reference to Augustus, the Naipaul’s cat who passed away and is still mourned by the author.
“Augustus would have salmon while we ate dal and chapatti,” chuckled Dhondy.
Video interview Farrukh Dhondy talks to www.asianculturevulture.com about Sir VS Naipaul at the Jaipur Literature Festival 2015