V S Naipaul led a literary life on the edge of rebuke. When he was not reprimanding entire sections of the human civilization with cruel detachment, he was revealing them with genuine empathy.
His eyes, often hidden in the heavy folds of his hooded lids, always seemed to sternly examine a whole range of the human experience. It was said by many that Naipaul, who died yesterday at 85, had a lofty disdain for the world. He came across as someone who was in the world but not of it. I would argue that in his own way his much talked about disdain was a great measure of his deeply abiding interest in humanity. In frequently seeming to be rejecting it or reviling it he was in fact committing to it unlike any other contemporary writer.
With his characteristic causticity he once said of Ernest Hemingway that the itinerant writer "was so busy being an American" he "didn't know where he was." He was relatively nuanced but still sharply judgmental of Joseph Conrad, also a great traveler with whom he was handsomely compared and even described as his worthy successor. I have to quote from an older post of mine in some detail to be able to make a point about Naipaul’s view of Conrad. I wrote the following on July 14, 2014.
Unlike Naipaul’s difficulty with Conrad, which is genuinely scholarly, mine is trivial. It stems from a restricted understanding anything and everything. I understand the words and sentences and descriptions of whatever he is writing about. It is just that I don’t get the emotional content of it. It is a world far removed from my comprehension. It is like when you are really thirsty and only water would quench it. No amount of expensive wine of any vintage would help. That is how I feel. (This, from a lifelong teetotaler.)
I had just begun reading ‘The Lagoon’ when I ran into my familiar difficulty of not being able to emotionally connect or even empathize with the material. It was at that point that I searched for ‘Naipaul on Conrad’ and found the NYRB (New York Review of Books) piece. My emotional distance is almost entirely a result of the fact that I feel that way about almost any human experience. A vast majority of times I have to feign or manufacture what resembles an intelligible human response to things. It is absolutely my failure and not the failure of the writer, any writer.
As I read Naipaul’s piece I came upon a telling phrase. First Naipaul quotes Conrad as saying this to the writer and critic Edward Garnett, “Other writers have some starting point. Something to catch hold of…. They lean on dialect—or on tradition—or on history—or on the prejudice or fad of the hour; they trade upon some tie or conviction of their time—or upon the absence of these things—which they can abuse or praise. But at any rate they know something to begin with—while I don’t. I have had some impressions, some sensations—in my time…. And it’s all faded.”
To which Naipaul responds saying, “It is the complaint of a writer who is missing a society, and is beginning to understand that fantasy or imagination can move more freely within a closed and ordered world. Conrad’s experience was too scattered; he knew many societies by their externals, but he knew none in depth.”
My engagement with Naipaul, while reasonably substantive, has been erratic. Quite apart from his extraordinary skill to produce austerely elegant prose I have also been deeply admiring of his fierce commitment to writing as his only career. He just kept at it no matter what hardship and disappointment. He saw himself as a writer of consequence and truly became one. As he often pointed out, he found his subjects and wrote about them “intuitively.”
“I have an idea when I start; I have a shape. But I will fully understand what I have written only after some years. I said earlier that everything about me of value is in my books. I will go further now. I will say I am the sum of my books,” Naipaul said in his Nobel Prize lecture in 2001.
That he saw himself as “the sum of his books” was his articulation of his steadfast commitment to a writer’s life. That is what attracted me to him as someone who shares his profession but certainly not his gifts.
I instantly connect with his spare and unsparing prose in all its judgmental and disdainful rejection of entire human societies. I may not agree with him on a lot of subjects but I certainly get his ambition. As for his prose, it is delectably austere and precise. If Naipaul’s literature were a building, it would be Zen minimalist like traditional Japanese homes. My liking Naipaul’s writings has more to do with the fact that they are like reportage, something I understand very well. Even his novels read like he is reporting from an unfamiliar world, albeit fictional.
It was a measure of how seriously he took his “material”, as he liked to call his writings, that there were times when he would write just one paragraph in a day. He was as fastidious about the structure of a sentence as he was about a paragraph. He was known to be utterly intolerant of any changes to his prose, including even the smallest of punctuations. Diana Athill, who edited 19 of his books at the publisher Andre Deutsch in London between the 1950s and the ‘70s, was quoted by The New Yorker in 1994 as saying, “You didn’t actually ever have to do a single thing to any of his books.” If that is not the purity of a great writer, what is?
Famously intolerant of people with half-baked intellect who tried to interact with him, I think I would have managed to find a meeting ground with the great writer had I tried. For some reason, as a journalist I never felt the need to do that. I could have sought an interview or two but did not see the point of it. This is not to suggest that my mere act of seeking to meet him would have prompted him to meet me.
Equally gifted as a novelist as a chronicler of the real world, Naipaul found that as a form the novel often fell short of capturing the sweep of the real world as non-fiction writing did. It was no accident that he devoted the second half of his life to nonfiction. Intrinsic to that was a remarkable view that he once expressed thus: “Plot is for those who already know the world; narrative is for those who want to discover it.”
That sense of discovery deeply informs his many writings from India, Argentina, Congo, America, Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan and Iran. His ‘Among the Believers: An Islamic Journey’ is a powerful example of a writer driven by narrative rather than plot. It is indeed a discovery for him.
Among the traits that many of Naipaul’s critics have pointed out is that he was an ingrate even to those who helped him. The very fourth paragraph in ‘Among the Believers’ speaks about Sadeq, his Iranian guide and interpreter, thus:
“He (Sadeq) came some minutes before eight. He was in his late twenties, small and carefully dressed, handsome, with a well-barbered head of hair. I didn’t like him. I saw him as a man of simple origins, simply educated, but with a great sneering pride, deferential but resentful, not liking himself for what he was doing. He was the kind of man who, without political doctrine, only with resentments, had made the Iranian revolution. It would have been interesting to talk to him for an hour or two; it was going to be hard to be with him for some days, as I had now engaged myself to be.”
Naipaul was known for witheringly dismissive impressions of those whom he engaged for some specific purpose. In a sense, this could also be a strength when it came to ensuring the independence of his writings about large themes he addressed without being led emotionally astray by the obligations of small alliances along the way.
There is a great deal in Naipaul’s life and work that can be commented upon but mine is a rather inconsequential perch. I mostly write for myself in the hope a few others might find it engaging.
With Naipaul’s passing, the world has lost its most perceptive articulator of the human conflict.
A word or two about the sketch accompanying the piece. As an artist, I am quite poor at producing likenesses. However, I like this one, done very quickly a couple of years ago, because I think it captures the Naipaulian gaze well.