V. S. Naipaul


Interview, December 2001

Interview with the 2001 Nobel Laureate in Literature, Sir V. S. Naipaul, by Horace Engdahl, Permanent Secretary of the Swedish Academy, 12 December 2001.

Sir Vidia talks about how he learnt to be a writer; how his writing developed (4:47); ‘A House for Mr. Biswas’ (6:20); ‘The Loss of El Dorado’ (10:41); his style of writing (17:43); ‘The Enigma of Arrival’ (21:42); ‘A Bend in the River’ (29:53); and about his name (32:37).

Interview transcript

My name is Horace Engdahl, I am the Permanent Secretary of the Swedish Academy, and I welcome here today in the studio Sir Vidiadhar Naipaul.

V. S. Naipaul: Thank you.

Nobel Laureate in Literature of the year 2001. Sir Vidia, if you try to think back to your beginnings as a writer, when you were a young man, and hadn’t yet published anything, what was your idea of the kind of writer you wanted to begin with being? What kind of literature did you want to produce? Into what tradition, if I may say so, did you wish to insert yourself in those days?

V. S. Naipaul: Actually it was, it couldn’t be that kind of question that one had to answer. One’s wish was to learn to write. You know, I could write school essays, I could do university writing, but to become a writer was another matter. The writing had to have another kind of internal life and spring and tension, so I had to learn. And the great, great problem for me, just beginning, was to find out what kind of person I was. Now, this is not pretentious. I began when I was about 17, much influenced by Evelyn Waugh, I began writing a farce, set in Trinidad, and I worked at that for two years. Now, nothing happened to that. I was heartbroken, but not disappointed. The value of that to me was that I learned how to take a book to the end. I learned distance in writing. But the farce was not suited to me.

Still, if I may interrupt you, in the short stories of Miguel Street, there seems to be farcical elements in your writing.

I spent a long time working at something much more serious, much more sombre.

V. S. Naipaul: When I became secure, when I became secure, because after that farcical Evelyn Waugh-like book, I spent a long time working at something much more serious, much more sombre. And I sent that to … I was doing a BBC programme, editing it, once a week, and a literary person came to do something on the programme, and I asked him to look, look at what I was doing, and he replied very promptly, saying please abandon this. This was a serious book.

So, out of these two rejections the farce and then this very sombre later book, these two failures, I arrived one day in my mind quite miraculously at this other tone in Miguel Street, which you just mentioned. And I’ve thought about the origin of that, and I believe it has a base in Spanish picaresque writing. I believe it derives from Lazarillo de Tormes, one aspect, one aspect. That was a book I studied in the sixth form before going to Oxford, and when I was in Oxford, and out of this wish to be a writer, not knowing what to write about, one of the things I did was to translate the Lazarillo for my own benefit. I sent it to the editor of the Penguin Classics and, oh no, I asked him whether he’d like me to translate it and he didn’t think it was a classic. So nothing happened to that, but it was with me for a long time, and I think the tone was still with me. I can still, as it were, give you the rhythm and the language of the Lazarillo. Well, first of all, you must know that my name is so-and-so, and I was the son of so-and-so, and I was born on the River Tormes, it came about in this way. So I know the rhythm of that kind of thing. Yes, so that’s where it began really.

But gradually it seems to me you came to weed out the element of farcicality and comedy.

V. S. Naipaul: Yes. Yes. Yes.

And once you arrive at A House for Mr Biswas things are very different in your writing. Why was that?

V. S. Naipaul: It was a great … this early writing, which was full of jokes, and it … those jokes were a form of hysteria, and the hysteria had to do with my own uncertainty, in every way. Uncertainty about myself, uncertainty about my writing, my family life, the whole thing. And when people are so uncertain they can make a lot of jokes like that.

Protecting oneself.

V. S. Naipaul: Yes. It is the response, really, it’s the way you deal with it. And when a bit of certainty came in, with the writing, then I found other aspects of my personality now, without striving for them, entering the writing, and it was in that book. You are quite right, that fourth book was where another personality emerged which had been dragged out by labour, by literary labour.

And this book made you famous, is that right?

V. S. Naipaul: Not immediately. I’ll tell you what it did. It took a long time to get started as a piece of writing, and I think it took about seven or eight months to feel that it was a real book. And then it became grander and grander in my mind, and for the first time I felt I was a writer.

… and for the first time I felt I was a writer.

I used to walk the streets feeling very confident and I told someone that if, at that stage, someone had said to me, now, I’ll give you a million pounds, but on this condition, that you stop writing, I would have said no. It gave that confidence. So that was one of the great effects of it. It gave confidence in the handling of language. I told you I had to learn to write. Now, I haven’t told you that it was a deliberate learning. I forgot everything I knew when I was beginning to learn to write, and I did this thing about writing one sentence after another, adding one bit of meaning to another bit of meaning. And probably it became stilted. In this fourth book, the one you mentioned, I could let the sentences become longer, I could let there be subordinate clauses. I was very much aware of that feeling, I was confident enough to do that.

And also it seems that you’ve won confidence in the form of the novel with that book, because it is a grand novel, on the scale of the Victorian novels that we know of the 19th century. I think of it personally as one of the very few examples in the 20th century of the truly successful novel, in the classical sense. Where did you learn the craft of the novel? Who were your models, if you had any?

V. S. Naipaul: I had none. The learning came with what I had done before. That prentice work, those first three books, Miguel Street, The Masseur, another comic book, that, and the beginning of Mr Biswas, that was where I learned it. I learned it by the writing.

And the fact that you arrived in Mr Biswas as a novel on the grand scale, it came naturally out of the material, you mean?

V. S. Naipaul: Yes, and it began in a rather stilted way. So I wasn’t prepared for what happened. And again and again in my writing and in my literary life it comes with this idea of surprise, I’m taken by surprise. Things happen and I don’t know why. My original idea for that book, the fourth book, which you say is very big and successful, was very schematic. I thought I would have a man dying. My father had died in 1952 so that would be an element in that. And he’d be surrounded by a few simple pieces of furniture. Again, this would echo something in our past. And I thought he would tell the story, or the writer would tell the story, of the various pieces of furniture. I think by the time I got to writing the book, the schematic thing was abandoned. But I needed that to feel I knew where I was going. But I learned it myself. And what I was doing in that book, the big fourth book, everything was visual. There was a picture in every paragraph, and every sentence as I wished, every sentence adds, adds, adds. So the book is very fast and very pictorial. It was because I had had to learn for myself, really.

Later on you wrote other novels, but gradually you came to move away from the novel in the classical sense. To me, this process begins already with The Loss of El Dorado, which is a book that resembles nothing else. I can think of very few parallels to that book. I mean, it’s not a piece of history in the ordinary sense, it’s not a novel, it’s not a fantasy, it’s documentary in a sense, but it has the atmosphere of a piece of fiction without being one. How did you find that form?

I look for the people, I look for the stories …

V. S. Naipaul: Well, it came naturally because I was asked to do this book about a city, so I chose Port of Spain. And then I found that there were not the, the material was not available. So I had, living in London, to go to the sources. And of course I’m not an historian, not an academic historian. I look for the people, I look for the stories, and I wrote it in my own way, so the labour was quite immense. To write a paragraph of narrative, seemingly simple narrative, I probably had consulted about 20 documents. So every little detail about the commissioner’s wife, churning butter, thinking it was as good as Cambridge butter, little details, everything had been arrived at through the documents. And I was not interested in the other kind of history, only this human history. And I paid a bitter price for it.

In what sense?

V. S. Naipaul: No-one was interested in it. It’s very hard to imagine now, but 69 years ago that kind of work about the New World, and this place in the New World, from which I had come, it was not considered a good way of writing history, and the area itself was not considered important. It’s a singular way of looking at the world, but it existed in those days. I remember the man who wrote for The Times, he actually was a friend of mine, disliking the book, and saying I should have written a pamphlet. You know?

I’m glad you didn’t, though.

V. S. Naipaul: I’m glad I didn’t. So I paid a price, the American publisher who commissioned it didn’t pay for it, so I had to look around for another publisher. So I got very little money for two years’ hard labour. Anyway, there we are, that’s the story of that. And again, it was a writer working in his own way, and not knowing he was doing anything original. It just seemed natural.

But you came to discover that you had landed upon a new way of writing, a new method in this book, because later when you reflect on, for instance, when you found the name Chaguanas in the archives you had become aware that there was something in fiction that didn’t quite suit your needs, and that you had to develop a form that was more tied to factual details, and to the actual utterings of people that you had met. And let me recall another thing you said, just the other week, at the press conference when you arrived in Stockholm, and someone asked you your opinion of Stendhal, and it so happened that you had just re-read his two major novels, and become violently disappointed with them, having been an ardent admirer of Stendhal. This must mean that to you the novel, after all, is a form of some importance and that makes high demands on its writer, and perhaps even a very gifted man like Stendhal was not able to answer to that demand.

V. S. Naipaul: He couldn’t do it, he couldn’t do it. He had intelligence, he had a lot of social experience, he had the wish to be a writer, but there was something where the inspiration dried up very soon. And he couldn’t take you along, possibly because actually he probably had lived too full a life. Probably had found fulfilment in real life, whereas I think writers probably have to live more seriously in this other world, the world they create. I think it’s possible.

The parallel you made then was with Flaubert who lived in his country house without any life at all. It’s throughout long stretches of his life with only the rats for company, and some old ladies who sat with his mother on the ground floor. But where do you come in yourself in this, I mean, are you, do you feel yourself to be primarily a novelist? Personally, although I praised in my speech at the Concert House, your travel books and your non-fiction, I feel that maybe you are at heart a man of the imagination, because everything you write, even if it is based on factual details, seems to be, how shall I say, there is an all-pervasive vision that colours it and that melts it into something different, transforms experience into, well, literature. We don’t have to call it novel but it is definitely literature.

… one is so much seeking to understand the world through their eyes.

V. S. Naipaul: Well, they are almost works of the imagination. Although shall we say with the travel books, bad word, the books of enquiry, you know, on certain movements, one is so much looking for people. One is so much looking, one is so much seeking to understand the world through their eyes, these people who are quite different from me, and I’m interested in them, the way I’m interested in all people, and I try to present the world through their eyes, so inevitably, as you’ve just said, it does become a work of the imagination. It’s actually my writing imagination, observing and dealing with their experience.

Your style, that is a much discussed phenomenon. I even heard someone who had computed the average number of letters in a word in your texts and that should be four, I think, if I remember right. That may very well be correct. It’s obvious that to any reader the style strikes one as transparent and very clear, I think Coetzee said in an article recently that it’s cool and clean like a knife. And how do you arrive at that style? Is it something that comes naturally, or do you arrive at it by elimination, by crossing out words, removing unnecessary adjectives, and so on?

V. S. Naipaul: Well, it begins with what I said earlier about how I learned to write, when I try to get every sentence to say something. And I think that’s become a habit. I no longer think I’m doing it but that is the habit of writing. So the writing moves very fast. And then I do have to get everything I want to say into the sentences. I must be careful not in my speed to leave things out.

I made a speech, a two-minute speech, at the banquet, the awards banquet. I give you my word, that was written three times, there were three drafts for it. One draft, then typed out, that corrected, then corrected yet again, so as to get it all. And one aspect was to get the spoken language, to get it, the quality of speech in it, and the other thing was to, as it were, to get, well, I was talking with a watch, my watchstrap was broken, and I wanted to make a little story about this for the dinner. And I wondered about the symbolism, and I’d talk about various people in the past who looked for portents, and then I said well, yes, because I was coming to the ceremony, that it was OK, that’s what it meant, that time was going to stop and then time was going to become new. And so the watch then had become benign again. Now I had to, that came in about the third version, the watch was benign again. And it was telling me that my time was running out, and I had, I forgot to put in the first draft, it was telling me without threat that my time was running out. You know, that is, these are the little things I do. I hope, I’m sorry to give it in this little fine detail, but this is …

It’s most useful, I think, for the listener.

V. S. Naipaul: This is how the writing is done. What I don’t do, I don’t rewrite whole areas to make it fit. I write as I go along. There must be that progressive discovery.

That puts me in mind of the quotation from Proust that you used in your Nobel Lecture, with this melody that exists somewhere in the head, and you had to get down all the notes. And sometimes you miss a few, and then you have to return to …

V. S. Naipaul: You have to return and get the other notes …

… get the additional notes until they are all there and you sing the melody like it was meant. Well, that makes sense, somehow.

V. S. Naipaul: But it’s not done self consciously. It’s not done for effect at all. It’s done, in fact, not to be noticed.

Yes, and I mean when the melody’s there nobody sings what went before.

V. S. Naipaul: Exactly.

I think that if you look at your writing as a whole, there are at least to me two books that tower over the landscape, one we have already mentioned, A House for Mr Biswas, the other one being The Enigma of Arrival, which to me is one of the true masterpieces of contemporary literature, and an amazingly difficult book to describe. One doesn’t know quite what it is. Did that also just evolve?

V. S. Naipaul: It just came to me to write it like that. It just absolutely came to me to write it with this outer autobiographical crust, about the man being a writer, and how out of this wish to be a writer, and out of social ignorance, he is still looking only for what he’s read, and when he comes to England, and missing the great stories around him in 1950, which England was full of, still, you know, the post-war refugees, the displaced persons they were called, I missed all of that, or the writer missed all of that, and was looking for what he had read in books, and at last the narrative, the outer narrative is he finds, he stumbles on his material, which is his own background, his past, the Empire, it gets ever bigger, and final irony, he comes to rest in the manner created by an Imperial fortune, which is now in decay. So the outer part was …

But this decay also, in a way, makes room for him.

V. S. Naipaul: It makes room for him, yes.

Which otherwise wouldn’t have been there.

V. S. Naipaul: Exactly, exactly. And he’s aware of that, and he’s grateful for it. Yes, it makes room for him.

And to a certain extent identifies himself, I think …

V. S. Naipaul: With the decay.

And also with his aristocrat he sees across the lawn. At least, there is a sympathy.

V. S. Naipaul: Yes, there is a sympathy. But I suppose if the writer in that book had got to know the aristocrat, had got to understand his limitations, had got to understand the boastfulness …

It’s like when Proust finally made his way into St Germain and discovered that the wonderful conversations that he had dreamed of didn’t exist, they were talking nonsense. It was as superficial as you could ever imagine.

V. S. Naipaul: But if I, if the writer had met the landlord figure, then probably he couldn’t have written that book. It’s better for the landlord to be vague, in the background. And I was very much aware when I was writing that, the word ‘landlord’ comes from Wuthering Heights. Wuthering Heights is written in the first person, an unimportant person tells the story, and he just says I’ve just visited, or had a visit from, my landlord. And it was Mr Heathcliff, you know, who was the landlord. And that word, just used it there, but English, if you use the language, I’m afraid it’s full of these little echoes and verbal borrowings and things like that.

Every literary language is a kind of a churchyard.

V. S. Naipaul: Absolutely.

Other writers buried beneath.

V. S. Naipaul: Yes, good way, good way of saying it, yes.

However, if you look at the title of that book, The Enigma of Arrival, it first puzzles the reader, but after a while you come to a chapter where the whole thing is explained, it goes back to a painting or, to be exact, a reproduction of a painting by de Chirico, and you make a sort of reading or interpretation of that painting and you tell a little story, and that is the enigma of arrival. Well, that story I personally find to be completely amazing. It so fascinated me when I read it, and also the fact that you make practically no use of that story in the book. It is just there, isolated. But still it radiates a sort of energy into everything else in that book. And I have to ask you, how you came to this fantasy, because it isn’t really in the picture. This is something that you have found.

… my thoughts go back to the classical world. It’s always interested me …

V. S. Naipaul: Ah well, I suppose it, in the de Chirico painting there is a sail, and the people, it is a quayside, if we can describe it, it’s very hard to describe it, nothing is strictly real. It’s a quayside and there’s half of a mast of an old fashioned sailing vessel, probably an old fashioned galley, and the figures look classical, so my thoughts go back to the classical world. It’s always interested me, the way the ships stayed close to the coast.

You think of Ostia, or something like that.

V. S. Naipaul: Something like that, yes. And then I thought of all the food and how it would have travelled, so it came like that, it came like that. And probably there might have been some element of a dream …

Yes, that’s what I was going to suggest.

V. S. Naipaul: … there would have been a …

There is a dreamlike quality to the tail. This way of losing one’s self. You have a goal in a dream but you never reach it, you know, you’re always diverted. Endlessly.

V. S. Naipaul: In that little story you liked, the man gets off the ship, he comes to the strange classical world, he has adventures and then he’s got to run away again because they become nasty adventures. And he …

Yes, that’s interesting. And how do they get nasty? Well, he becomes involved in some sort of religious procession, or ceremony, and suddenly you realise that he is going to be the victim. And that’s interesting because I think here we strike at a deep almost anthropological fantasy that has a real content, what one anthropologist has described as the original system of our culture, human sacrifice, which kept the community together by directing the evil energies to one particular person that was thrown out of the community and became a victim, was emulated and later sanctified, and transferred to God. I mean, you find this mechanism in all religions if you go far back. And I think there is a remnant of this in everybody’s psychology, especially people who, like writers, become a bit isolated in society, and are faced with groups into which they are never quite integrated.

V. S. Naipaul: I think you’re probably right.

They always fear that they’re going to turn into lynch mobs so it’s a potential in every group and congregation you meet, that they will discover the victim in you. That’s, I mean, I’m not taking this out of your writing because that’s a personal feeling that I have myself, and I was very touched by that when I read it, when I came to this detail in your dream, or your interpretation of it. But that’s the way it has to end, suddenly you realise that this place that seems so full of promise is actually a place where people are going to sacrifice you. And you have to get away.

V. S. Naipaul: But when he gets back to the quay, there is no sail. There is no ship. And it’s rather frightening.

Yes, it’s very frightening, because it means that his life is over.

V. S. Naipaul: Yes. And you, just this second, what I say is really quite true, things occur to be only when things are talked about. There is an echo of that in a book I wrote about Africa, four years later, A Bend in the River. It occurs right at the end, when the African boy, who is serving a dictator like Mobutu has cooked up a plan to kill Mobutu, has that dream, he says I have a dream, and how are we going to go, are we going to go in one car, or are we going to go in two cars? So, with the man who is going to be killed, would he be with the rest of us? Would we be able to talk with him, or … so it occurs again. It’s the same story. It’s the same story, and …

And it’s equally frightening.

V. S. Naipaul: … it’s equally frightening. Equally frightening. Yes, equally frightening.

And this, I think, is the basic element of epics, you know, that this possibility always exists. That you can always be the victim, unsuspecting, and you suddenly find yourself confronted with this, this mob that is going to destroy you.

V. S. Naipaul: Well, you know, that it’s your analysis and you know, I actually accept it.

I think it’s just a situation of literature, in a sense, too, and I mean, we’ve seen tragic examples of that over the last decades in various parts of the world. And whenever someone raises the voice against literature, like they have sometimes done when criticising your book, I always hear this murmur of the mob.

V. S. Naipaul: The mob. The academic mob.

Yes, it can be an academic mob, or it can be just a …

V. S. Naipaul: Yes.

… a vulgar mob. But it’s there, somewhere. That’s the frightening aspect of …

V. S. Naipaul: But fortunately I have worked in a free society, fortunately. And I have been able to ignore those murmurs and get on with my work. I could easily imagine, though, not being in a free society and really being, as it were, silenced. That’s unbearable. But there we are, there we are.

Well, one aspect of being a writer, I suppose, is that other people gain control of your myth. But this, in a way, recalls the fact that everyone has to live with that. You have a name, but the name is nothing having lent it, other people have called you by that name, and you don’t pronounce your name, other people do. You know, myself, a couple of years ago, I realised that I was no longer sure how my first name should be pronounced. It’s an English name, it comes from my grandmother, and my father used it with an English pronunciation, just like you do. But living in Sweden all my life, the pronunciation’s gradually been corrupted, and now people in the literary world usually say it in quite a different way, and there are three or four pronunciations of it, and when asked myself which is the correct one, I have no answer. Because I never use the name myself. Then I happened to come upon a passage in the letters that you published the other year, between father and son, which is the letters between yourself and your family, and there in a letter to Kamla, it’s your sister I understand, from 1952, you say like this. Let me quote: ‘Everybody calls me Vidiadhar. Disgusting name, and even I have got into the habit of calling myself that way.’ How do you feel today?

V. S. Naipaul: Well, I was attracted to the long name. Vidiadhar. It is a Sanskrit compound word and it’s very simple. The word vidia has the same root as the word video, to see, from which we get everything, video, vision, everything, vista. So it means the bearer of wisdom. And I cherished it, you see, it was given to me, by my father, and at one time it was my only possession. It was my name as a child, so when it was shortened, I really felt I had debased it a little bit, yes. That was probably what was meant there. But now I have to live with that.

I suppose you have.

V. S. Naipaul: There’s a little question for me. There’s some talk of having a library with my name, and I am wondering what name I should give it. And I would very much like the full name, rather than this easy abbreviation. But I’ve thought about it like that. The name was important to me, and you know, one doesn’t wish to talk too much about things like this in this way, but there was a man I met, in India, who was a fan of my work, and to my great surprise he came to see me last year, an elderly man, of course, and then he turned up in Chicago to a reading I was giving and brought his daughter. He’d given his grandson my name, so this sort of magic was going on. He gave it as a kind of magic. So, it’s magical, magical.

But your comfort must be that whatever people will call you, your books will always retain your full name. That’s how it’s going to be preserved.

V. S. Naipaul: It will be preserved like that, yes, good.

Thank you.

V. S. Naipaul: Thank you.

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