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|Arrivals and other enigmas|
|V.S. Naipaul's way in the world|
|The writer who, in V.S. Pritchett's assessment, "uses all his wits to make people talk of themselves ... [through] his ingenious Socratic questioning" offers a revealing glimpse of his own life and craft to Tarun J Tejpal|
"I wanted to be very famous. I also wanted to be a writer: to be famous for writing. And the absurdity about the ambition at the time was that I had no idea what I was going to write about."
Photo and copyright (c) by Frederick Reglain
I think there is a reason why India collapsed so easily to all these invasions and finally to the British. There is an inward reason. It is not enough just to blame external forces. That has always been my attitude. We must examine ourselves, examine our own weaknesses.
June 1998 publication
Today people are interested in writing from India or other retarded or former colonies. But at that time  Miguel Street was not considered writing. It was a very hard thing to have to write this material, to have copies made, to wonder about it being lost. It really upset me and it is still a great shadow over me.
A Bend in the River, 1979
The Modern Library, 1997
When you are destitute, as I very nearly was, two years of destitution is a very long time to wait. It all seems very easy now. The books coming out one after the other, but they were created by great anxiety, great suffering. I could have been given a much easier ride but I wasn't because of the time. It was very hard for me to get a job, it was very hard for me to find a place to live, very hard for me to find my own voice.
A House for Mr Biswas, 1961
Everyman's Library, 1995
For more works by V.S. Naipaul available from Random House, please click here.
An Oxford don described The Mystic Masseur as "a little savoury from a colonial island." A "little savoury," which didn't represent labour.
Oxford was wretched. I was far too well prepared for it. I was far more intelligent than most of the people in my college, or in my course. I am not boasting, you know well - I mean, time has proved all these things. There was a kind of solitude and despair, really, at Oxford. I wouldn't wish anyone to go through it.
I discovered that when people employ you, actually it's a form of imprisonment. It meant you've got to be at a particular place at a particular time. I've forgotten - 9:30, I think. You had your little lunch break, and then you literally had to stay at your desk till it was time to leave. I went out one day and had my hair cut and I came back and the woman who was running my little show rebuked me. It was a great mistake. I just walked out. I said, "I'll go, I'll leave"; and I left and I've never taken another job.
This is the absurdity of setting yourself up as a fiction writer. You assume that there is endless material within you that you can exploit and exploit and exploit. It isn't exactly true. Serious fiction is really only a very limited part of one's material, of what is inside one. One should be a writer for all kinds of other reasons.
It would be nice to say that the world stood up and took notice of A House for Mr Biswas, but of course the world didn't. The book just clanked along in the way of my earlier books, and it was some time before it made its way. It's a book that has really flourished only in what is effectively the English-speaking world. It hasn't done anything at all in French - of course its translation wouldn't be very good in French; the French have a very low intellectual standard.
To be a writer is to be observing, and to be feeling, and to be sensitive all the time. And to be a writer, a serious writer, is not to do what you've done - not to do it again, to move on. I felt the need to move on. I felt I couldn't do again what I'd done before. I felt that I shouldn't just stay at home and pretend to be writing novels. I should move and travel and look and explore my world, and let the form take its own natural course.
A lot happens when you meet people; everything is contained in that. If you don't meet people well, if you can't, 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. A lot depends on how you decide to move. You use your judgement, you use your flair.
When I am writing a book, I have to understand first of all that the book will probably be written in two years, published in three, and you want it to be around for twenty to thirty years. So you have to take a particular point of view that will keep this matter important even in thirty years' time. Journalism is news, it's an event that is important today. My kind of writing tries to find a spring, the motive of societies and cultures. It's not something anybody can do. It's a more profound gift.
I think literary forms come and go. And once things have been done in any art form, they just can't be repeated. That is death. So it may well be that in writing, the highest form is not fiction. That has been done; that was done in Russia, in England, in France, and in other countries, in the last century, for the most part. And there are other ways now of dealing with experience and emotion.
Every writer has to find his own way of dealing with his material and experience. What they mustn't do is copy one another and do mimic novels. Mimic someone else's form. That's not interesting. That kind of form falsifies. If you pour your very special experience into a borrowed form, into somebody else's form, something they teach at art school or night school or something, then of course it's falsified.
India has not really recovered from the wound of Muslim invasion; and this led me in Beyond Belief, during my travels, to an understanding of the neuroses of conversion. Islam is in its origins essentially an Arab religion. People who are not Arabs and who become Muslims are regarded by Arabs as converts, and the special neurosis attached to it is that Islam is not a religion of private conscience. It isn't just a matter of meditation; it's a religion of declaration, it's a religion of rules, of strict adherence to a Prophet who is considered Final. It's unlike anything, shall we say, in India, in ancient Indian religions or the old Indian religions. When a person outside the Arab world becomes a Muslim, he is required by the faith to reject all his past. In a curious way then, it is quite opposed to modern ideas of, shall we say, heritage - modern ideas of history and inquiry. The past has to be rejected, and the convert's eyes fixed on Mecca: that is all that concerns him. The holy places of Mecca are his holy places; there are no holy places outside. This is a great neurosis, the rejection of all that one is, all that one stands for. It is a profound kind of colonialism, one has to say, and profounder for having religious sanction.
In the books of exploration I've been doing, I've been evolving or working towards a form, where instead of the traveller 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 civilisation by their experiences. So Beyond Belief is a book of personal experience, and it will be very hard to fault it in that way. You can't say it's maligning anything. In one way, you might simply say it's a book of stories, a book of tales.
I always write a book as though it's the last one I'll be allowed to write. The world is full of accidents. Human affairs cannot be predicted.
What I loathe, what I never read, is pornography. I have never seen a pornographic film in my life. I was introduced to the pornographic magazine, or the soft porn magazine, really very late in my life. I just saw them and I was quite shocked really, quite shocked.
I just wish my prose to be very transparent. I don't want the reader to stumble over me. I just want him to look through what I'm saying, and to look at what I'm describing. I don't want him ever to say, "Oh goodness, how nicely written this is." That would be a failure.
I don't despair for English literature. It does not exist now. I think for many reasons. Partly because it's very hard to do again what's been done before. There's perhaps no way of dealing with modern life. It's probably very hard to deal with restricted modern life. Possibly too, commercial- isation has destroyed publishing, as will appear very soon. Partly too, the prizes which treat literature as though it were a series of horse races. The prizes have damaged both would-be writers and would-be publishers, and have made them ask for a particular kind of thing. I think it's in a bad, bad way in England. Perhaps it has ceased to exist. But so much has existed in the past, perhaps there's no cause for grief there.
India for a long time, in fact for many centuries, has had no intellectual life at all. Not worth talking about. It's been a ritualised society that doesn't require writing. But when such societies emerge from this purely ritualistic life, and they begin to expand industrially, economically, and in education, then people begin to need to understand what's happening. They turn to writers, and writers are there to guide them, to provoke them, to stimulate them. I think there's going to be a lot of writing in India.
Modern poets - my illustration is this: If you're going to the post office to post a parcel and an old lady comes out who's just posted a parcel, you write a poem about that: The old lady who has posted her last parcel. You write, you hold the door open for her, let her pass, some absurdity like that. You know these little tiny moments people write about. It is like the sound of the violin. Often sounds so affected. People trying to scratch themselves to see whether they can feel.
I was so damaged at school by the Romantics, I haven't been able to face them with a straight face ever since. And Auden? People talk about Auden, but I think there is little sense in Auden. Very wonderful with words. Eliot, I think, is just stating philosophical banalities, and it's full of exaggeration.
I don't know about Ireland. I think Ireland has just ridden piggyback on the British empire. Whatever comes out of it is given exaggerated importance. Ireland is a very small country, and I think its issues are not very important for me. What's there in Joyce for me? A blind man living in Trieste. And talking about Dublin. There's nothing in it for me, it's not universal. And a man of so little imagination, able to record the life around him in such a petty way, but depending on an ancient narrative. No, no, no.
In my good day, my routine day, after I'd been with my book, I'd have a good lunch, and then I'd be working towards either a bottle of wine or dinner or towards going out to a dinner party. I thought there were three things that were very wonderful in the world: Landscape, eternally refreshing to one's spirit; a dinner party, marvelous, well done, well organised; and meeting people, new people. So the three things were contained there. One went out not for the food, but the occasion; but I'm coming back to work at my book, that's part of what I'd like. I go out to dinner, meet people for two-three hours, then get back to work. The ideal world. The routine would be that - the good routine.
Editor's note: "His themes, his vision of human destiny in our time," writes Elizabeth Hardwick of V.S. Naipaul's work, "are composed with a perfection of language, a narrative gift as flowing and inventive as that of the supreme novelists of the nineteenth century, a flawless sense of structure - and above all a profound knowledge of the world." This month, Random House publishes Beyond Belief: Islamic Excursions Among the Converted Peoples, V.S. Naipaul's twenty-third book and his follow-up to Among the Believers: An Islamic Journey (1981). In Beyond Belief, Naipaul continues his examination of one of the more important and unsettling issues of our time: the effects of the Islamic conversion of Indonesia, Iran, Pakistan, and Malaysia - which Naipaul terms "neurotic." But Beyond Belief is not a book of opinion. It is - in the Naipaul way - a very rich and human book, full of people and stories. This interview took place in Delhi.
Tarun J Tejpal: You first visited India thirty-five years ago. You've kept coming back, both to write and to holiday. What's the source of the continuing fascination with India?
V.S. Naipaul: It is my ancestry really, because I was born with a knowledge of the past just ending with my grandparents. I couldn't go back beyond that. I could go back only a little bit to my mother's father's family. For the rest it was just absolute blankness. It's really to explore this - what I call the area of darkness.
Tarun J Tejpal: Do you think it is crucial to your function and material as a writer to know where you come from and what made you what you are?
V.S. Naipaul: Yes, yes, it's like this. When you're like me and you are born in a place where you don't even know the history and no one tells you the history and the history, in fact, doesn't exist. In fact, it still exists only in documents. When you are born like that you have to learn about where you come 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. I think if you are a French writer or an English writer, you are born to a great knowledge of the country and your origins and your culture. When you are born like me in an agricultural colony far away, you have to learn everything, and the writing has been the process of inquiry and learning.
Tarun J Tejpal: Just cast your mind back to say, 1950, the year you moved to London. Tell us what was V.S. Naipaul then? You must have been a bundle of neuroses, setting out across the seas to a completely alien land in the pursuit of ambition. Give us a sense of what the eighteen-year-old boy was looking for?
V.S. Naipaul: Well, ambition, yes, that's very important. I wanted to be very famous. I also wanted to be a writer: to be famous for writing. And the absurdity about the ambition at the time was that I had no idea what I was going to write about. It's really absurd. The ambition to be a writer came to me long before I had any material. I was talking the other day in Bombay to the filmmaker Shyam Benegal and he said he knew from the age of six that he wanted to make films. I wasn't as precocious as that. I wanted to be a writer by the age of ten. So it was this ambition that sent me to England.
I won a scholarship. I worked very hard for the scholarship because without the scholarship, with the great poverty of our family circumstances, I would not have been able to leave the island. In those days very few people left where they were born. People were more or less rooted where they were born. This scholarship, it was a colonial government scholarship, was instituted to give boys who were very bright a profession. I mean it was a very generous scholarship. There were three of them or four of them later that were given by the colonial government to the boys. And if you came first in your subject you were given a scholarship and then they guaranteed to see you through any profession you wanted, to the very end. So I could have become an engineer, I could have become a doctor. I could have done anything. Some boys who did mathematics there and wanted to become doctors began to learn about chemistry from the early learning stage - they supported them even through that.
But I simply wanted to do English at Oxford. Not because it was English and not because it was Oxford. But only because it was away from Trinidad and only because the three or four years I was going to be away, I thought I would learn about myself I would find out my material. I would miraculously become a writer. Instead of getting seven or eight years of protection and learning a profession I chose this banality of English. Which is, you know, a worthless degree. It has no value at all. But that is how I came to England, with ambition, ignorance, and there's something else too which is very important: I was oppressed by the pettiness of colonial life. I was also oppressed by something else about it which relate more particularly to one's Indian-Hindu family background. The intense family disputes. These disputes that were full of moralising, people were judged and condemned on moral grounds. It was not a generous society - neither the colonial world nor the world in which I grew up, the Hindu world. The narrow Hindu world in which I grew up, I wished to get away from that. I had a vision that in the larger world outside people would be appreciated for what they were. People would be found interesting for what they were.
Tarun J Tejpal: Unconnected to the family they came from?
V.S. Naipaul: Yes. And that one would not be subject to that moralising judgement all the time. And people would probably walk around you and find what you were saying interesting, or find you, uninteresting; and it actually did happen in England. I did find a more generous way of looking at people, and I still find it more generous.
Tarun J Tejpal: When you were in Oxford was there any sort of racism?
V.S. Naipaul: I didn't think of that. No, I wasn't looking for it at all. I think it's only later generations, who've grown up in the post-imperial world, a world where there was no racial legislation in their country - out of their great security people have been looking for racism. I know that fifty years after the empire disappeared people universally chat a lot about it. But I think people like myself; we in 1947-50, we didn't think like that. I thought in fact that the empire ended in 1947. There was no point in fighting those old wars. I made a point in my early writing never to mention the word imperialism. Never. I couldn't bear it as a word. I thought it was a word of abuse used by scoundrels. To tell you the truth, to a certain extent I still think so.
Tarun J Tejpal: Will you explain that?
V.S. Naipaul: Why I say scoundrels use it? Let me tell you a very simple story, from this trip. I met a very nice man on this trip [to India]. We were watching a monument, a very grand monument, and he said where have all the people gone, the people who built this? I suggested they were destroyed by the invasions, and then I asked him more about what was happening in his neck of the woods, and he said that he was so demoralized by the British and the people here were so demoralized that they haven't been able to do anything in this backward state. I thought it was a very bad thing to say. I thought it was a shallow thing to say.
Let me go back a little. My father was a writer. He wrote stories, a journalist who wrote stories. These things were very important to me, the writing. And my father's attitude was one of examining our Hindu background in the stories. He found it a very cruel background, and I understood from his stories that it was a very cruel world. So I grew up with this idea that it was important to look inwards and not always define an external enemy, and I still believe that.
I think there is a reason why India collapsed so easily to all these invasions and finally to the British. There is an inward reason. We have to look internally for the reason. It is not enough just to blame external forces and say the clock and the cannon, and so on. That has always been my attitude. That is the source of it. We must examine ourselves, examine our own weaknesses.
Tarun J Tejpal: Your views on the ongoing Hindu resurgence in India are often appropriated by reactionary politicians. Does it bother you?
V.S. Naipaul: Well I think this movement represents a general movement of thought in India. Whereas before people were incapable of considering the country, now they are able to look at it a little more and at what wounded them before. They find little crumbs of solace and things they can refer to. It doesn't worry me if people misuse what I say. I think writers have to face that. And eventually if there's truth in what the writer says then these arguments will be correctly assessed. And these points, or this sensibility, will become correctly expressed or examined or understood.
Tarun J Tejpal: You speak as easily of the cruelty of Islam as you do of the cruelty of Hinduism. And different sections appropriate different things at one time or the other. Does that upset you?
V.S. Naipaul: No, that is their business. I can't blame any of them. They will do what they wish.
Tarun J Tejpal: Let's go back to the beginning of your writing career. Tell us about the initial hunt for material, and the first attempts at writing a book.
V.S. Naipaul: Well, it really can't be said I've written about this, all I can say is I took a long, hard look or a long despairing look. First of all I wrote something quite farcical, actually a very interesting idea, the farcical idea though it derived from Evelyn Waugh and Black Mischief, I began to work on it in 1949, long before Africa was free. The idea was of a blackman or Negro in Trinidad, giving himself a name of an African king. That was the idea I tried to explore. It was a very funny, farcical book, inspired in part also by the Trinidad carnival. I was seventeen when I began that and it dragged on as a piece of writing for two years because I was too young to know much.
Tarun J Tejpal: This was happening at Oxford?
V.S. Naipaul: Yes. I actually had begun it a little bit before I left home, in 1949-50, and then I finished it in 1951, I think, during a long vacation. And I was very glad I did finish it because at least it gave me the experience of finishing a long book, a long manuscript. I was nineteen then. Of course nothing happened to it.
I actually began writing after I left Oxford, and really in great conditions of hardship. I began to write something intensely serious. I was trying to find out my voice, my tone, what was really me, what was not borrowed or acting. The war boys were the war boys, you see. Then this other serious voice, I don't know, it led me into great shallows of depression. It dragged on for a while until I was told to abandon it by someone to whom I sent the manuscript. And out of that gloom, that after five years I had done nothing, I hit upon my own voice.
Tarun J Tejpal: Did you have someone who was reacting to everything you wrote at that point?
V.S. Naipaul: No, not during that very bad period. What happened was that a man came to the studio - I was working as a freelancer with the BBC Overseas service, Caribbean service really - and I asked him to read what I was writing, this very serious book, and he told me it was rubbish, and I wanted to kill him. But deep down in my heart I knew he was absolutely right. So I spent many weeks, probably four or five, feeling wretched - five years and nothing happening.
And then something happened. There was this great need to write, you see, because I had decided it was to be my livelihood, it was not a hobby. I wasn't doing anything else. This was what I'd committed my life to. So I had to do something and then I found a voice, I found the material, which was my own voice.
Now, again it was inspired by literary sources, two of them. One was the stories of my father which I mentioned to you earlier, and the other was a Spanish picaresque novel, the very first published in 1554, Lasa Viso Tormes. It is about a little poor boy growing up in Spain, in great imperial Spain, a very short book. But the tone of that voice was something that I loved and so I married these two things together and found that it fitted my personality. So, what became very genuine and mine and original was really fed by these two sources, quite distinct, one from the other: my father who was a self-taught man of Hindu background and this sixteenth-century Spanish writer.
Tarun J Tejpal: And that's when you began writing Miguel Street on rustle-free BBC paper?
V.S. Naipaul: Yes. Now, the thing is, to be the first to write about anything - it is immensely hard. It is always easy afterwards to copy. So the book I wrote, I can see many people who would have had the same picaresque tone to write about their own background and do those stories. That mixture of observation and folklore and newspaper cuttings and personal memory many people can do, but at the time it was something that had to be worked out.
Tarun J Tejpal: Miguel Street was the first book you wrote, but The Mystic Masseur was the first that was published. What happened in that span of two years?
V.S. Naipaul: My life was very hard. Imagine writing a book like Miguel Street. But in 1955 the world was so hard for people like me, people wouldn't even want to look at it. Today people are interested in writing from India or other retarded or former colonies. But at that time it was not considered writing. It was a very hard thing to have to write this material, to have copies made, to wonder about it being lost, and have that book with me in loose manuscript for four years before it was published. It really upset me and it is still a great shadow over me.
Actually, the people who read the book then were people who remained very close to me for many years, for twenty years or so of my writing life. But their advice to the publishers, read this, it's a good book, it should be published, fell on stony ground. Because the publishers said, no, people don't buy short stories. He must write a novel. So there it was. I had to be driven to compose a novel, and I think, the sheer need really drove me to do this other book.
Tarun J Tejpal: The Mystic Masseur?
V.S. Naipaul: That's it. I remember one day coming to a great, great ditch, as it were, in the narrative. How is this man going to become a mystic masseur? I have called him this. I've set him up. But how is he going to do this? And a little miracle happened. Someone who was nearly a criminal came to the BBC office and began to talk to me about his life. He sat on the desk - I was editing this little programme - and told me about his own mystic adventures, and his own mystic healing, and miraculously, after some weeks of letting the story just stay there, mouldering away, the material was there. So I adapted it and went on. Little bits of luck like that helped. But probably I had earned the luck at that stage after five years of being in the wilderness. And then it was a long time before these books were published. Though these books were written by '55, the first one was published in '57, and the stories, Miguel Street, in '59.
Tarun J Tejpal: And The Suffrage of Elvira in '58?
V.S. Naipaul: Yes. But you see, when you are young, two years is a long time to wait. When you are destitute, as I very nearly was, two years of destitution is a very long time to wait. When you wish to make your presence in the world, it is a long time to wait. So I was made really to suffer. It all seems very easy now. The books coming out one after the other, but they were created by great anxiety, great suffering. I could have been given a much easier ride but I wasn't because of the time. It was very hard for me to get a job, it was very hard for me to find a place to live, very hard for me to find my own voice. It was very hard for me, having done all that, having written these books, to get them published.
And then it was very hard to get them adequately reviewed. A book like the Masseur, which caused me a lot of pain, was dismissed by my own paper. I was writing for the New Statesman at that time. It was dismissed as rubbish, and another person, an Oxford don, quite famous later, described it as "a little savoury from a colonial island." A "little savoury," which didn't represent labour. These reviews were interesting. It would be interesting to go back and see the books that were considered real books by the reviewers at that time and my little savoury or my little nonsense at the bottom of the list.
It was a long fight. It was a hard fight. And it's useless to tell me now, "All right, the books have been around for forty years; they are still around and they are still printed" - because I was damaged. I was wounded by this neglect. I think people today have it so much easier, that is why they complain. I never complained. I just had to go on.
Tarun J Tejpal: Would you like to tell us the kind of money they gave you for the first book?
V.S. Naipaul: Oh, 100 pounds.
Tarun J Tejpal: Is that all?
V.S. Naipaul: Yes, 100 pounds. I took it to Barclay's bank where I was banking my little, small BBC cheques, four pounds, five pounds, and there was great civility from the man behind the counter. In those days bank counters were quite cheerful. I gave the man the cheque to pay to my account and he was immensely kind. He stood up, leaned across the counter, and shook my hand.
Tarun J Tejpal: There is a very black moment in these years which you've vaguely touched upon in in the past.
V.S. Naipaul: What is this black moment?
Tarun J Tejpal: It was a moment obviously when you were at the very end of your tether, and you actually tried to commit suicide.
V.S. Naipaul: It was at Oxford, yes. It was the sheer solitude and destitution. Very bad years. You see, actually I hate Oxford, and I hate those degrees and I hate all those ideas of universities. I told you that I didn't go to Oxford to be at Oxford. I went to get the free time - those three years, this little passage. Oxford was wretched. I was far too well prepared for it. I was far more intelligent than most of the people in my college, or in my course. I am not boasting, you know well - I mean, time has proved all these things. In a way I had prepared far too much for the outer world, and there was a kind of solitude and despair, really, at Oxford. I wouldn't wish anyone to go through it.
Tarun J Tejpal: Why was writing always the central need of your life? Why was it always the way out of everything?
V.S. Naipaul: It was given to me as an ambition, that's all. It was given to me by my father, or he didn't give it to me. I took his example.
Tarun J Tejpal: You've said that you saw it as the only truly noble calling.
V.S. Naipaul: Yes, Yes.
Tarun J Tejpal: Now forty years into writing, twenty-three books later, does that still hold true for you?
V.S. Naipaul: Yes, it is true. I mean for me. It is the only noble calling. It's noble because it deals with the truth, and I can't bear the other kind of writing. I can't read it, the commercial writing, the fraudulent, complaining, colonial writing. The mimicry, I can't do it. Because it's the truth and you have to look for ways of dealing with your experience. You have to understand your experience, you have to understand the world. It's a constant striving after a deeper understanding. That's pretty noble. It isn't a matter of just doing the same thing again and again, you understand. It isn't a matter of doing an Agatha Christie or a Graham Greene or something like that - you hit your formula and then you keep doing it. No, I haven't done that. I have done something else.
Tarun J Tejpal: After the first three books, which were social comedies, you acquired a far more grim, serious tone.
V.S. Naipaul: Actually, the tone is not grim. It's full of comedy. The comedy is there, the comedy is less verbal, less farcical. I can read a page of my writing, any book, however dark you might think, and you'll laugh. I assure you that. It's full of jokes. The jokes have become deeper, the comedy has become profounder. Because one has to look more, one knows more. You can't do a turn as in the Masseur or Miguel Street. You can't do that all the time. The comedy is there, the humorous view is still there. Without that, one couldn't have gone on. You can't give a dark, tragic view all the time. It must be supported by this deep underlying comedy.
Tarun J Tejpal: What I am saying is you moved away from light, frothy comedy to the black humour of A House for Mr Biswas . Tell us about the writing of Biswas.
V.S. Naipaul: Well, it began in a bad way. I'd just published the first book. Now in those days you must understand that there were no interviews. Books were published, but there was no marketing. So it was okay. It was calm and very quiet. The book was published and nothing at all happened. And I needed money desperately - money to send home to my mother: she was always wanting money - and through a friend, an Oxford friend, a woman friend, who was giving up a job at a particular place, I got a job working for, let me not name the people, shall we say something connected with the building trade. They produced a kind of product, very important in the building industry. I was - it's quite absurd really - to work on their magazine, you know. Very pretty name for a very tedious magazine. I couldn't stand it. I left it after ten weeks. I was paid a thousand pounds a year. I had asked for it when I was being interviewed. It was madness. I didn't have any money at the time but I was given that. So I was rich for a few weeks. I even sent some money home. For the first time in my life I was rich, and it was a very pleasant sensation.
Tarun J Tejpal: But it only lasted a few weeks?
V.S. Naipaul: Yes, because I just couldn't stand it. I discovered that when people employ you, actually it's a form of imprisonment. Up to this time you must remember I hadn't really worked for anybody. And what I had done as a boy in Trinidad was not really work. This was work; it was imprisonment. It meant you've got to be at a particular place at a particular time. I've forgotten - 9:30, I think. You had your little lunch break, and then you literally had to stay at your desk till it was time to leave. It was unbearable when you were doing nothing, or when you were writing something and staying longer. I went out one day and had my hair cut and I came back and the woman who was running my little show rebuked me. It was a great mistake. I just walked out. I said, "I'll go, I'll leave"; and I left and I've never taken another job.
Tarun J Tejpal: And that's when you started writing Biswas?
V.S. Naipaul: Yes. I began it really casting around in a desperate way for a subject. This is the absurdity of setting yourself up as a fiction writer. You assume at that stage in your life that there is endless material within you that you can exploit and exploit and exploit. It isn't exactly true. Serious fiction is really only a very limited part of one's material, of what is inside one. One should be a writer for all kinds of other reasons. Out of this great emptiness I played with ideas. I was so despairing that I actually began to write with a pencil - I didn't feel secure enough. And I was thinking of someone like my father who, at the end of his life, would be looking at the objects by which he's surrounded himself and considering how they came into his life. So it began like that. I wrote laboriously, without inspiration, and actually it went on for a very long time. It went on without inspiration for about nine months.
Tarun J Tejpal: You were writing every day?
V.S. Naipaul: Not strictly every day because when you're not inspired you do things with a heavy heart. I was trying at the same time to become a reviewer. Somehow I had failed. Someone had recommended me to the New Statesman and they were very good. They sent me one thing, they sent me another, I was trying too hard and it failed. And then they tried again, they sent me some novels. No, they sent me some books on Jamaica, and this nice easy voice came to me, the reviewer's voice - very light, very funny; and so I extended that and I became a reviewer. So there was an achievement at that time, learning how to review, to write short, interesting pieces about a book and to make the book absolutely real to the reader. So that was going on and in the meantime I was doing this thing and then that original idea about the novel, about the man surrounded by things, that caught fire. It caught fire quite late. I was so excited I wrote the date on the manuscript - which is now destroyed, I should say.
Tarun J Tejpal: What was the date?
V.S. Naipaul: I think it was in July '58. And thereafter it was all right. I began to devote three weeks out of every four to this work, and I think I knew pretty soon after that time that it was a great work. And I was very pleased that although I was so young I was committing myself to a major piece of writing because I had begun in this other way, rather small, thinking when one had trained oneself enough one would attempt grand work. But then this happened to me and so I wrote with immense solidity, stateliness, every day. I began to write at about nine in the morning and go out for a little lunch, or I prepared a little lunch myself. The afternoons were not good. I was very tired. Even then there was steady writing and there came a moment that if someone had stopped me on the street and said, "I'll give you a million pounds now, one condition: you must not finish your book," I would have told him, "Go away, I must finish my book." So I finished the book. I knew without being told that it was a very good book.
Tarun J Tejpal: You wrote it all in longhand?
V.S. Naipaul: I wrote it on the typewriter with a lot of corrections in longhand. It was really a mixture. I think the early draft was done on the typewriter, one of those manual things which we have now forgotten. The correction I began to write in exercise books. The revision was done in longhand.
Tarun J Tejpal: What was the reaction?
V.S. Naipaul: I had a very nice publisher, you see. Then apart from my publisher, the woman who had read my stories became a great champion of my writing. So as soon, in fact, as the woman had read my writing I had a friend in London. I had someone who voted for my work, and it was greatly admired.
Tarun J Tejpal: So it was received well from the moment it was read?
V.S. Naipaul: Yes, it was received well from the moment it was read by the publisher. When the book was published something very nice happened. There was an Australian writing in England this time and a friend of mine sent him the proof and he fell in love with the book. He told me he'd read it three or four times in the proof, and he wanted to write a review of it. He asked me in which paper should he write the review. I used to read the Observer, so I told him to write it for the Observer, and he wrote a big review there. And it would be nice to say there was a rush on the book, but of course there wasn't. It would be nice to say that the world stood up and took notice, but of course the world didn't. The book just clanked along in the way of my earlier books, and it was some time before it made its way. At the time it couldn't even find a publisher in the United States, you know.
Tarun J Tejpal: That's amazing. For how many years?
V.S. Naipaul: It eventually found a strange firm that dealt with technical books. They printed a thousand copies and most of those remained there. It received a very prudish press in America, and it's a book that has really flourished only in what is effectively the English-speaking world. It hasn't done anything at all in French - of course its translation wouldn't be very good in French; the French have a very low intellectual standard. It hasn't done anything in any other language. Only in English. And not in America.
Tarun J Tejpal: Soon after this relative success you made your first foray into travel writing?
V.S. Naipaul: I'll tell you, these careers are so slow, you write a book and at the end of it I'm so tired. Something wrong with my eyes; I feel I'm going blind. I can't see. My fingers are sore; I wrap them up in tape. There are all these physical manifestations of a great labour. Then a happy thing. A racial government in Trinidad, but they think they should give an appearance of being non-racial. They invited me to come back and travel around the region. So that's how I began to travel.
Tarun J Tejpal: For The Middle Passage ?
V.S. Naipaul: Yes, I did that then. Most of the time I couldn't see, actually. My eyes were giving me immense trouble. The glasses didn't seem to help and I went once to a hospital, eye hospital, and there was a black man there - very grave old black man who actually gave me terribly wrong lenses. Whether out of malevolence or ignorance, I don't know. But I was tormented by these glasses from one of London's fine eye hospitals. How strange human minds are - though that journey was done in constant visual pain, I remembered just the journey afterwards; I forgot my eyes. It was just fatigue, of course. I went to a doctor before being sent to the eye hospital - the state of medicine was very poor in 1960 - and I went to this doctor in England, National Health Services, and he could only recognise pregnancy in women. He gave me some aspirin. Would you believe that? It's a true story. So I travelled in those circumstances, and thereafter life unfolded.
Tarun J Tejpal: Was this your first attempt at nonfiction?
V.S. Naipaul: As I told you earlier, it is wrong to think of anyone as a producer of fiction because there's a limited amount of material you can work on. Yet to be a writer is to be observing, and to be feeling, and to be sensitive all the time. And to be a writer, a serious writer, is not to do what you've done - not to do it again, to move on. I felt the need to move on. I felt I couldn't do again what I'd done before. I felt that I shouldn't just stay at home and pretend to be writing novels. I should move and travel and look and explore my world, and let the form take its own natural course.
Tarun J Tejpal: Would it be accurate to say that after you finished Biswas you'd more or less completed your material on Trinidad? You didn't go back to that material till more than thirty years later in A Way in the World .
V.S. Naipaul: Yes. You see it is that early material, that childhood material that one is trying very hard to see, as it were, as it exists. Everyone knows that he had a childhood, of course, but the nature of the experience is very hard to understand. And the reason why it is so important to a writer once he understands it, once he sees it, is that it's complete. It has a beginning, it has a distant kind of background, a very dark background, the darkness about its birth, and then it has an end when a writer becomes a man. It's contained; it's complete. After that there is trouble. After that you depend on your intelligence, you depend on your various strengths, you know, your inner strength. Yes, that goes into the later work after that. The later work rises out of this inner strength.
Tarun J Tejpal: You must have been sustained largely by self-belief?
V.S. Naipaul: Yes. I never doubted. As a child it was in me, as a child I had a feeling, I'm speaking as a very small child, I had the feeling that I was marked. I don't know where it came from, and much of it is contained in the name that was given me, which I cherish very much. It's a very long name, as you know, but I cherish it.
Tarun J Tejpal: You have done three books on India over the last thirty-five years. An Area of Darkness , India: A Wounded Civilisation , and India: A Million Mutinies Now . Your responses to the country in the books has varied. Can you tell us how these three books happened, and how the responses have shifted each time?
V.S. Naipaul: Actually, the three books stand. Please understand that - I do not want any one to supercede another. They all stand. All the three books stand because I think all three remain true. They are all written in different modes. One is autobiographical, one is analytical, and the last is an account of the experience of the people in the country. They are written at different times, and like India, of course, people exist in different times. So you could say An Area of Darkness is still there. You could say that the analysis of the invasions and the defeat, the psychological wound in India, is still there. In fact, very important. And then you can say that the Mutinies book, where people, where everyone is discovering some little voice with which he can express his personality, express himself, speak of his needs - that remains true. So the books have to be taken as a whole. I would like them to be read all at once. To be taken as still existing, still relevant, still important. In all of this, you must remember that I am a writer. I am a man writing for the printed page. I am a man writing a paragraph, a chapter, a section, a book. It's a craft. I am not just a man making statements. So the books represent different stages of my craft. An Area of Darkness is a very extraordinary piece of craft, a very extraordinary mix of travel and memory, and reading. A mixture of anxiety and comedy - all these things are there. The other one represents another kind of craft, and the third book, the Mutinies, represents the later stage, the discovery that the people in the country are important, and in a way it's a very taxing form. Taxing in this way that a lot happens during the actual travelling. A lot happens when you meet people; everything is contained in that. If you don't meet people well, if you can't, 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. A lot depends on how you decide to move. You use your judgement, you use your flair. I will look at this and then that person, what he says about himself and his experiences lead you to consider something else, and something else, then something else. So the book happens during the actual travelling, although the writing takes time as always. So they're different bits of craft. Always remember that I am a writer, I am a craftsman, changing the craft. The craft changes all the time. I am trying to do new things all the time.
Tarun J Tejpal: An Area of Darkness suggested a lot of anger. Now it's a question that comes up whenever An Area of Darkness is discussed, especially your journalism as related to India. Do you think anger works better for a writer than, say, understanding?
V.S. Naipaul: I don't like to think of it as journalism. Journalism is news. And I don't do that. I don't write news at all. When I am writing a book, I have to understand first of all that the book will probably be written in two years, published in three, and you want it to be around for twenty to thirty years. So you have to take a particular point of view that will keep this matter important even in thirty years' time. Journalism is news, it's an event that is important today. My kind of writing tries to find a spring, the motive of societies and cultures, especially in India. This is not journalism - let me correct that. It's not something anybody can do. It's a more profound gift. I'm not running down journalism. It has its place. But I don't do journalism. I'm not competing with journalists.
Tarun J Tejpal: But does anger work better, or understanding?
V.S. Naipaul: I think it isn't strictly anger alone. It is deep emotion. Without that deep emotion there's almost no writing. Then you do journalism, perhaps. If you don't feel emotion, you go to Uruguay, you cover the elections, you are not involved. Then your company can fly you to Bogota, something about the drugs. You are not involved. But when you are deeply churned up by something, first of all you know you cannot express this naked raw emotion; that is not writing. You have to come to some resolution about it. So it's that refinement of emotion that really makes the writing, what you call understanding. The two things are not opposed to one another. They derive one from the other, or the second one - understanding - derives from what you called anger. But it's what I would call emotion, deep emotion. Emotion is necessary.
Tarun J Tejpal: All this seems to suggest that you're incredibly drained at the end of a book.
V.S. Naipaul: Yes, one is drained. Then there's a process of just being nothing. A process of being utterly vacant for a while. I'm being vacant now, really - for the last nine months.
Tarun J Tejpal: At the end of nine months is something beginning to agitate you to get back to writing?
V.S. Naipaul: I actually find myself being agitated now. I want to get back to my work.
Tarun J Tejpal: What sparked that curious book, Mr Stone and the Knights Companion , set in England?
V.S. Naipaul: It isn't the only book set in England. In fact The Enigma of Arrival  is really my main book about England. But that early book - it is the process of being a writer. I had written Biswas and done this travelogue which I paid no attention to - The Middle Passage, about the remnants of slavery in the Caribbean and South America. I had done that. Then I was coming to India to look at India, and I was very anxious. I also knew that I had to be writing again. I couldn't let many months pass. I might lose the talent, might lose the gift, might lose the voice, so I had to get a story. I went back to that building place, where I worked for ten weeks, and got something from there and got something from the house in which I had stayed, and fused the two together. But I am dissatisfied with that book because it's a novel and it's written in the third person. Therefore it assumes great wisdom. I think it would have been universal and it would have been much more interesting if the writer had identified himself; had found ways of describing why he was there, how he got this material, how be entered that house. It would have given it a greater depth. But there was this slavery at the time to what I considered the noblest thing in the noble form - that writing is noble, and the novel is the most important aspect of it - which I no longer think. I think literary forms come and go. The Shakespearean plays have their brief flaring, ten years, fifteen years, then it's over. Restoration comedy has to fade away. The Dickensian novel lasted as long as Dickens. Things have to move. And once things have been done in any art form, they just can't be repeated. That is death. So it may well be, as I feel now, that in writing, the highest form is not fiction. That has been done; that was done in Russia, in England, in France, and in other countries, in the last century, for the most part. And there are other ways now of dealing with experience and emotion.
Tarun J Tejpal: Are these the ways you explored in The Enigma of Arrival and A Way in the World?
V.S. Naipaul: Yes, I have tried to do that, but not in any self-conscious way by looking for a new form. I've just tried to find the truest way of dealing with material. And as I said at the beginning of my talk with you, when you are born in my kind of place, my kind of background, you're not born to history. You have to acquire it, and I acquired it through reading, through writing, through travelling, through exercising my fantasy. So the books, these two books, are ways of dealing with that emotion, making it really true. Stendhal wrote an autobiography which was never published in his time. A very strange book. Part of the problem for him was that all writers say "I was born and I became a child," but when the adult man is writing he sees things differently. Stendhal writing this autobiography does both the things. He tries to do the adult view, and the child view, and very quickly in a paragraph he takes you into his confidence and tells you that that's how the child saw it but there's another view to it. This is the truer thing to do rather than write that kind of autobiography, where you assume a fuIl knowledge of the world. I was born there, I went to that school ... These books combine the experience of learning with a knowledge of one's deepening experience.
Tarun J Tejpal: There are some people who don't see these books as your best, perhaps because they are so subtle.
V.S. Naipaul: It doesn't worry me. People are free to say that. When Biswas came out, a woman in the BBC, an Indian woman, disapproved of it. You know why? Because it was written in improper English. The characters spoke in bad English. Can you imagine? This was said in 1961. You have to live through that initial scepticism. The point is: serious writing is in trouble in America and in England. There's no literature in England now. It's died away. People aren't aware that it's died away.
Tarun J Tejpal: Do you think A Way in the World and The Enigma of Arrival are a hint of the new forms of writing to come?
V.S. Naipaul: Well, I wouldn't think like that, you know, because every writer has to find his own way of dealing with his material and experience. What they mustn't do is copy one another and do mimic novels. Mimic someone else's form. That's not interesting. That kind of form falsifies. If you pour your very special experience into a borrowed form, into somebody else's form, something they teach at art school or night school or something, then of course it's falsified. My experience is like this. Let's go just a little bit into A Way in the World. I began writing about that street in the first book, Miguel Street; that was one view of the street. Now that was one truth. But I also knew even when I was a child in school that the land on which we were living was the land where, 200 years before, aboriginal people had lived, and had then been wiped out. They don't exist. Not a single one of them. Not one of them is surviving. It was a terrible thing to understand, to come to terms with. Then I did some work about this, going back into the papers. So that's another way of seeing the same land. Then I travelled - Guyana, South America, other places, saw surviving Indians in their villages. That was another way. So when I went back to the documents, I saw the land I had travelled in yet another way. So the same land, because I had to learn about it, appeared in different ways right through my writing life, as it were, and the hook is an attempt to do that, to write narratives at different stages of understanding about the land. To me it's a perfectly simple thing to do, although I couldn't express it at the time in the way I've expressed it now. For this reason I think one is just moved to write, to deal with a certain amount of material, and then it is only much later, years later, that one understands exactly what one has done. That is the great beauty about writing, in fact. The writer knows at one or two levels what he is attempting to do. But while writing there are a million things that happen in it, of which a writer is not absolutely aware.
Tarun J Tejpal: Which are then discovered by the readers?
V.S. Naipaul: Yes, the reader picks up various things. In A Way in the World there are references to food, clothes, to people ending up as parodies of themselves - any number of themes in the book which I'm not aware of. Many people have pointed out themes, and I've said, "Yes, that's there." That's the way you are writing, you see - if you write very fair, very squarely then these things do happen, this awe of mystery.
Tarun J Tejpal: The narrative style of A Way in the World and The Enigma of Arrival is infinitely subtle and complex, far more challenging and fulfilling when compared to India: A Million Mutinies Now. How do the books fall out? How is it that Enigma and A Way in the World, written ten years apart, get the new form you are moving towards, while A Turn in the South  and A Million Mutinies Now, which come in the middle, during that ten year hiatus, get a completely different, far simpler form?
V.S. Naipaul: A Turn in the South and the India book are different. They are inquiries, they are ways of venturing, venturing into other people's countries, other people's territories. And it's a way of making a pattern of other people's experiences. So the nature of experience is different. The personal experience finds this other form, the one of Enigma and A Way in the World. Whereas the external inquires find this form of external narrative. The writer travels and finds stories and the stories make a pattern.
Tarun J Tejpal: Have you ever thought of giving a name to this new form, of Enigma and A Way in the World?
V.S. Naipaul: No. Things will make their own way. You mustn't forget, you know, that just the other day the Bengali essay was considered a very vibrant form, and then someone as recent as Virginia Woolf would write essays about the essay. So forms do change. History in the last century in England was a great literary form. Scientific inquiry with Darwin a great literary form. History today, of course, is an academic jargon impossible for the layman to read. Scientific inquiry is impenetrable to the layman. Forms do alter. They must find their own way. You mustn't categorise fiction, travel, nonfiction. That is limiting and foolish.
Tarun J Tejpal: What sparked off the new book on Islam [Beyond Belief], your second book on the subject, after seventeen years?
V.S. Naipaul: Well, all my work has a kind of relationship, one book to the other. Everything begins with my own background. I explore or try to explore all the facets of that background - New World history, Africa, England, a lot about India and then the Muslim world: the non-Arab Muslim world. This book is prompted by two things. One, a wish to update or to look at the countries of Among the Believers . Look at them sixteen or seventeen years later. So that is one relation. The other was, as it were, to carry over something from India: A Wounded Civilisation, because the wound that is described in that book was about the wound of Muslim invasion, from which India has not really recovered, as I feel; and this led me in this book, during my travels, to an understanding of the neuroses of conversion. Islam is in its origins essentially an Arab religion. People who are not Arabs and who become Muslims are regarded by Arabs as converts, and the special neurosis attached to it is that Islam is not a religion of private conscience. It isn't just a matter of meditation; it's a religion of declaration, it's a religion of rules, of strict adherence to a Prophet who is considered Final. It's unlike anything, shall we say, in India, in ancient Indian religions or the old Indian religions. When a person outside the Arab world becomes a Muslim, he is required by the faith to reject all his past. In a curious way then, it is quite opposed to modern ideas of, shall we say, heritage - modern ideas of history and inquiry. The past has to be rejected, and the convert's eyes fixed on Mecca: that is all that concerns him. The ruins of - not the ruins, the holy places of Mecca are his holy places; there are no holy places outside. This is a great neurosis, the rejection of all that one is, all that one stands for. It is a profound kind of colonialism, one has to say, and profounder for having religious sanction.
Tarun J Tejpal: Is it unique unto Islam, or is it the neurosis of all converts from one religion to another?
V.S. Naipaul: Well, I have only been able to look at two kinds of conversions. One is the most important conversion in the ancient world - which is the conversion of the world from the classical faiths, the classical deities of city and place and things like that, to Christianity. I would say, yes, that when those so-called pagans became Christians, they had to abandon their older beliefs and they did so quite easily, because the new beliefs - be it Islam, Christianity - are full of social ideas which the old religions never had. The older religions are essentially about keeping the gods sweet. Trying to ensure that things will move for you as they should, if you make the correct sacrifices. The ideas of brotherhood and charity and generosity actually do not occur in a religion like Hinduism, nor do they occur in any other classical religions, the worship of Jupiter or Isis or things like that. So there is something radical about conversion, to revealed religion with its rules. It isn't Islam alone. What I suppose is peculiar to Islam is this rejection of history, one's own history. This insistence on the sacred language being Arabic. In Malaysia now you have this group of fanatics who would like Arabic to become the language of Malaysia. They are a small group but they represent the way the converts can move.
Tarun J Tejpal: And this sort of disjunction, does it create all kinds of frictions in society?
V.S. Naipaul: Yes. I think once you start, once you think of being converted like that, you can never be good enough. You can never be pure enough. And I found, even in 1979, people in Malaysia, trying to rid themselves of their past, which is an impossible task, because you cannot make yourself as empty as a bit of glass. They wanted to be pure, they wanted to be the only tellers of faith. Everything that rooted them to the land of Malaysia they wished to reject, all the antiquated customs, some of which were Hindu customs, like marriage customs. So the requirements are really quite awesome, also tyrannical. And I think if I had to think about using a word for religion in a place like Pakistan, whenever the word is used it is used in connection with power, it is also used as a form of threat. You cannot be good enough if you are a convert; you cannot simply be good enough if you are a convert from the non-Arab people.
Tarun J Tejpal: I heard you once say that Islam is now in need of a renaissance. In what ways do you think this can happen, if it is necessary, and why is it necessary?
V.S. Naipaul: This is where we get into all kinds of trouble immediately with fundamentalists who believe that what was said by the Prophet, or supposed to be said by him, remains hard and fast for all time, regardless of the change. So to say that you need a renaissance now is to get you into lots of trouble with people who say you are rejecting their religion. But clearly we need to look at the position of women. Clearly, the idea of tolerance, the other faith, has to become part of a revivified Islam. This brutal restatement of a faith, I think, is isolating the Islamic world more and more. And growth and intellectual life can only come if the mind opens up. As it is, all the answers are given. There is no room for further discussion. Which makes it unlike almost every other culture which is alive and living and constantly adapting this and that.
Tarun J Tejpal: Do you anticipate, with this new book, any trouble from the prickliness of Islam's defenders?
V.S. Naipaul: I don't think so. I think people might criticise me, but I am very careful never to criticise a faith or articles of a faith. I am just talking now about the historical and social effects. There will be criticism. I mean, all one's books are criticised, and that's how it should be. But this book, remember, is not a book of opinion. This goes back to the earlier point I made about all one's works standing together. In the books of exploration I've been doing, I've been evolving or working towards a form, where instead of the traveller 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 civilisation by their experiences. So this is a book of personal experience, and it will be very hard to fault it in that way. You can't say it's maligning anything. I looked at personal experiences and made a pattern of personal experience. In one way, you might simply say it's a book of stories, a book of tales.
Tarun J Tejpal: Much in the way of A Turn in the South and A Million Mutinies Now?
V.S. Naipaul: Absolutely, absolutely yes. This one is a different challenge. Everything develops; I try to make it do so. I am very particular about not repeating a form, and here there were thirty narratives and I tried to do them differently, each one differently, so that the reader would not quite understand the violation that was being done him. I didn't want the stories to read alike.
Tarun J Tejpal: Some years ago you saw some merit in the resurgence of Hinduism in India, now it's brought a fundamentalist party to power. What do you think of this trend now?
V.S. Naipaul: Well, Hindu resurgence, fundamentalism - my thoughts on this matter are very complicated. They can't be simplified. It must go back to A Wounded Civilisation. In A Wounded Civilisation the point is made that old India was really rather destroyed by the Muslim invasion and what has happened now, since the coming of the British followed on by Independence, has been only, not a resurgence, just a kind of Hindu life. And the renaissance is not really a renaissance which has been due to Hinduism and its tenets, it's a renaissance - here we are sitting, doing, using these tools, talking in this way - the renaissance has really come to us indirectly from Europe. We're an aspect of the European renaissance, if only we can face it. The old world is dead. It doesn't mean I have no regard for it. It means I want it studied; it means I want it approached with great awe, with great reverence. I think the idea of continuity is very dangerous in India, and it's also false.
Tarun J Tejpal: In your opinion is India still a wounded and decaying civilisation, or is this renaissance on for real now?
V.S. Naipaul: I think it's actually moving now. I think all the anxieties about the election, all the problems, all the little revolts here and there, all the little small parties, all these little things speak of movement.
Tarun J Tejpal: Can you tell me in brief - because it is important to the new form that you have been developing in Enigma and A Way in the World - how you arrived at the episodic structure of your Booker Prize-winning In a Free State , for in many ways it's a precursor to novelistic innovations by other writers later.
V.S. Naipaul: In a Free State is a series of narratives about people outside their own country. Indians in Washington, I believe, Indians in London, West Indian Indians in London, Indians in Trinidad, and then Englishmen in Africa. I thought it was important, since writing is so much a matter of association, for the writer to be known. If you are writing something about English people in Africa - and writing this in 1969 - it was important to say who was writing this book and I thought I must find a way of making that a part of my narrative. You just can't do a third person narrative about English people in Africa because there have been many books like that by English people and other people about Europeans in Africa. I wished to make clear where I was standing with relation to this material. I felt the need very much really to identify myself. I think today it wouldn't be so necessary for an Indian writer to say, "This is my stand, I'm doing this," because times have changed. Indian writing is known. So there isn't that need.
Tarun J Tejpal: In your Africa books, the characters always seem to live on the edge of being consumed and obliterated by the continent. For example, Salim in A Bend in the River  has a deep panic attack about his future after a wonderful afternoon making love to Yvette. What is this peculiar neurosis of Africa?
V.S. Naipaul: I think the neurosis is fear. Really, those of us who have been there as foreigners and spent time there, we can easily get ourselves very frightened. We can easily think, What if we can't get back to the airport, what if at night the roads close down? When I was in Kampala in Uganda - I was in East Africa for about nine months in 1966 - I knew there was going to be trouble because it was an open secret. And at night at times I'd hear the lorries moving, and I'd always wonder whether they were army lorries moving commandos to the palace. I was worried because we were far away from being safe.
Tarun J Tejpal: So there is this edginess in the characters?
V.S. Naipaul: Well, it has not ended well in either Congo or Uganda or...
Tarun J Tejpal: What happened at the end of A Bend in the River? Did you then reach some sort of crystallisation that this is the last novel I'm going to write?
V.S. Naipaul: No, I don't think one does that. It isn't as though I'm going to write this and this will be the last thing. Though it's true in quite a different way. I always write a book as though it's the last one I'll be allowed to write. The world is full of accidents. Human affairs cannot be predicted. So I like every book I do to be something that can be presented as the last one. But that's one thing separate from the question. No, I don't think it is prudent to say that I'd written A Bend in the River as the last novel I'll do. It is that, when I examined myself later, I found I had to do other things.
Tarun J Tejpal: You have always steered away from writing sex except in Guerrillas , and even when you have mentioned sex, it has a violence about it. Why?
V.S. Naipaul: I don't know.
Tarun J Tejpal: Are you uncomfortable writing about sex?
V.S. Naipaul: What I loathe, what I never read, is pornography. I have never seen a pornographic film in my life. I was introduced to the pornographic magazine, or the soft porn magazine, really very late in my life. I just saw them and I was quite shocked really, quite shocked. But the violence about sex, I don't know. I made a rule when I was writing Guerrillas - that book which is an account of a murder and hangs between sexual scenes: Writing is a matter of tone and association. It was important to suggest that what was being written about was not going to be another kind of pornographic scene in a hundred or a thousand other novels. It was important for it to be written about in a different way. So the actual physical details interact elusively. In A Bend in the River there is only one word consciously used by me which can be said to be related to the act of sex, and the word is "naked," and it's the only word used.
Tarun J Tejpal: Critics have often remarked that writers as characters occupy a pivotal position in your early books but seem to have lost this privileged position later...
V.S. Naipaul: Writers?
Tarun J Tejpal: Several of your characters are writers.
V.S. Naipaul: The very first novel, Masseur, the man becomes a writer. I am afraid the writer is me: Kailash is me. Yes, the writer occurs in Biswas again. That's very personal. And the later characters, they are seen from a distance, it is true.
Tarun J Tejpal: For example Roche in Guerrillas. He is not in a position of power and privilege. So in some ways there is a shift.
V.S. Naipaul: Yes, he is slightly a bogus figure, a man who fought a revolution, heaven knows for what reason. Then later characters, writers in A Way in the World, they are all slightly bogus, they are all false.
Tarun J Tejpal: Why this shift?
V.S. Naipaul: I think it's a part of one's understanding of the world outside. I began with this very glorious idea, writing as a very noble calling, and discovered later it was a great commercial exercise and could have great political complicity too.
Tarun J Tejpal: Is there a hint of contempt for men consumed by passion for their women? One example perhaps is Salim in A Bend in the River. What is the source of this kind of a reading?
V.S. Naipaul: I didn't feel any contempt for him at all. I felt immense sympathy and understanding. I thought he made the right decision to stay with it as long as possible, to stay with the passion as long as possible.
Tarun J Tejpal: So you don't think a man may be diminished by his obsession for a woman?
V.S. Naipaul: I don't think like that at all. Passion is so rare we should grasp it as it comes.
Tarun J Tejpal: Should readers search for clues in your books to find out about you, or will you write an autobiography?
V.S. Naipaul: I think the readers should pick their own way through the books. Yes, those clues are enough. However you never can tell. If someone comes to me saying, "Write an autobiography, we'll give you this and do that," I might weaken. But it's not in the cards.
Tarun J Tejpal: You said you might weaken. Have you ever as a writer weakened at any blandishment?
V.S. Naipaul: No. I remember when things were very hard; I was asked to do a series of radio talks for, I think, British Council, and they were going to pay me quite a large sum of money. This was about thirty years ago. They were meant to be sent overseas to tell students coming to England how to behave when they came to England. I tried very hard to write them, but I couldn't do it. I didn't like the sponsorship, the official writing. I can't do it. It isn't a moral quality in me. It's just the writer really, the writer minds the interference. I don't like people telling me anything when I'm thinking or getting near a work. I don't like that interference in my mind. During the draft of a book I can be very, very suggestible. I'm open to suggestions. In the old days I actually hid away from people. I wouldn't even go to the barber when I was at critical points. I don't like the interference with the mind. So that is why the writer rejects it. I couldn't ever live under such pressure.
Tarun J Tejpal: Do you have any bouncing board while you are writing your books?
V.S. Naipaul: Yes, people have listened. I've read my work out to people. Its very valuable to me. Very valuable. My work is really made to be read. That's partly the radio background, and helps clarity of thought and expression.
Tarun J Tejpal: Do you think language should only convey, and not dance and dazzle, as, for example, with, say, John Updike?
V.S. Naipaul: Well, people have to do what they want to do. I just wish my prose to be very transparent. I don't want the reader to stumble over me. I just want him to look through what I'm saying, and to look at what I'm describing. I don't want him ever to say, "Oh goodness, how nicely written this is." That would be a failure.
Tarun J Tejpal: So even as the ideas remain complex, the prose stays uncluttered, right?
V.S. Naipaul: Simple, simple, yes. And I mustn't use jargon. You see, one is surrounded by jargon. Jargon is in the newspapers, in friends' conversation; jargon is in the stuff on the radio, and as a writer you can become very lazy. You can start using words lazily. I don't want that to happen. Words are valuable. I like to use them in this very valuable way.
Tarun J Tejpal: Do you despair for English literature?
V.S. Naipaul: No, I don't despair for it. It does not exist now. I think for many reasons. Partly because it's very hard to do again what's been done before. There's perhaps no way of dealing with modern life. It's probably very hard to deal with restricted modern life. Possibly too, commercialisation has destroyed publishing, as will appear very soon. Partly too, the prizes which treat literature as though it were a series of horse races. The prizes have damaged both would-be writers and would-be publishers, and have made them ask for a particular kind of thing. I think it's in a bad, bad way in England. Perhaps it has ceased to exist. But so much has existed in the past, perhaps there's no cause for grief there.
Tarun J Tejpal: So you think publishing hype and hoopla is detrimental to great writing?
V.S. Naipaul: I think it's awful. I think it is the death of it. Fortunately in England, possibly the new form might be - probably they are doing very fine documentaries. I don't know. Probably an immense amount of talent goes into making films. So probably the talent is there, rather than in this dreadful writing that's being done.
Tarun J Tejpal: What about writers emerging from India? Do you feel similarly about them?
V.S. Naipaul: No, I haven't examined that. But I think that India will have a lot of writing. India for a long time, in fact for many centuries, has had no intellectual life at all. Not worth talking about. It's been a ritualised society that doesn't require writing. But when such societies emerge from this purely ritualistic life, and they begin to expand industrially, economically, and in education, then people begin to need to understand what's happening. They turn to writers, and writers are there to guide them, to provoke them, to stimulate them. I think there's going to be a lot of writing in India. The situation will draw it out now.
Tarun J Tejpal: Have you read any of the writers who have emerged post Rushdie, and Rushdie himself?
V.S. Naipaul: No, I don't know these writers. You see, I am so involved in my own world of work. I actually read very little of contemporary writing. I do my own reading of history and ...
Tarun J Tejpal: What about writers of your own vintage and earlier, R.K. Narayan, Mulk Raj Anand, and Raja Rao. What do you think of their writing?
V.S. Naipaul: I think that Narayan is actually very important. I think his influence should not be underestimated. I can see so many people who've been influenced by some thing small, but important, the first line of the Bachelor of Arts, and who'd wish to write books like that. I think it begins with the line "Chandran was just leaving the classroom when someone stopped him and said...." You know Narayan's touch, his comedy, these are marvellous things. I think he should be treated with honour.
Tarun J Tejpal: You have often decried poetry as a literary form. But curiously, you also accept Shakespeare as the greatest writer ever. How do you reconcile these two?
V.S. Naipaul: Shakespeare is a dramatist and he deals with very, very large emotions. Modern poets - my illustration is this: If you're going to the post office to post a parcel and an old lady comes out who's just posted a parcel, you write a poem about that: The old lady who has posted her last parcel. You write, you hold the door open for her, let her pass, some absurdity like that. You know these little tiny moments people write about. It is like the sound of the violin. Often sounds so affected. People trying to scratch themselves to see whether they can feel.
Tarun J Tejpal: You said contemporary poetry is like that. Are there earlier poets you admire? Twentieth- or nineteenth-century? Or is all poetry bad?
V.S. Naipaul: I was so damaged at school by the Romantics of the nineteenth century, I haven't been able to face them with a straight face ever since. And Auden? People talk about Auden, but I think there is little sense in Auden. Very wonderful with words. Eliot, I think, is just stating philosophical banalities, and it's full of exaggeration. "Weeping, weeping multitudes, droop in a thousand ABCs." ABCs is a little kind of coffee house. It's not true. It's not a vision. It's false. It's exaggerated.
Tarun J Tejpal: What about Yeats?
V.S. Naipaul: I don't know about Ireland. I think Ireland has just ridden piggyback on the British empire. Whatever comes out of it is given exaggerated importance. Ireland is a very small country, and I think its issues are not very important for me.
Tarun J Tejpal: Does that include Joyce?
V.S. Naipaul: Very much so! What's there in Joyce for me? A blind man living in Trieste. And talking about Dublin. There's nothing in it for me, it's not universal. And a man of so little, so little imagination, able to record the life around him in such a petty way, but depending on an ancient narrative. No, no, no.
Tarun J Tejpal: Would you like to say anything about your younger brother Shiva Naipaul, both as a writer and as a person?
V.S. Naipaul: Well, his death was the cause of immense grief for me. I grieved for him for two years. I very much liked his African book. My feeling is that that's his best work, the book called North of South. It's full of jokes. It has a shape. It's nicely written. I think it's a good book. I think it will last. I hope it lasts.
Tarun J Tejpal: Any regrets about your life in terms of writing? Any kind that you wanted to do and haven't been able to?
V.S. Naipaul: You know I find these questions impossible to answer. You can't imagine a kind of writing that you haven't done. Do you see what I mean? It doesn't exist. It's a philosophically flawed statement, "I wish I could do something like XY," because once you can imagine it, you can do it.
Tarun J Tejpal: I saw you play this party game where you asked people if they had everything, what would their ideal day consist of? I ask you, if you had everything - which you actually do - what would your ideal day consist of?
V.S. Naipaul: Well, actually you see this is a trap of a question. It isn't the ideal day. It is an ordinary, a routine day. Assume you've got everything and don't give a list of your possessions and how would you spend the day. I used to say at the time I established this game that I'd be deep in a book that would be very fulfilling for me, and that I'd be working every day at it. In my good day, my routine day, after I'd been with my book, I'd have a good lunch, and then I'd be working towards either a bottle of wine or dinner that'd be there, or I'd be working towards going out to a dinner party. In those days I thought there were three things that were very wonderful in the world: Landscape, eternally refreshing to one's spirit; a dinner party, marvelous, well done, well organised; and meeting people, new people. So the three things were contained there. One went out not for the food, but the occasion; but I'm coming back to work at my book, that's part of what I'd like. I go out to dinner, meet people for two-three hours, then get back to work. The ideal world. The routine would be that - the good routine. If everything were granted to me, yes.
Tarun J Tejpal: Are you serious about writing another novel?
V.S. Naipaul: I am being pressed, you know. I'm being pressed. And although I feel I've moved away from the form, and read very few novels now, and I thought that the kind of work I have to do should be a little bit in the nature of my last four books, I might do something. I'm being pressed, and I might do something like a political fairy tale. I might do something like that. I am being pushed to it.
Tarun J Tejpal: Is there any code of conduct or a set of rules, that a writer should follow? Do you have any personally?
V.S. Naipaul: What rules do you mean - moral rules, rules about work ...?
Tarun J Tejpal: Both: physical rules of actual operation as well as moral rules ...
V.S. Naipaul: Yes, I think you can't be a bad man or a crooked man and be a writer. Good writing requires a moral view of the world, and if your own view is not a moral one, I don't see how you and your work can hang together. There would be no internal logic in it.
Tarun J Tejpal: No centre?
V.S. Naipaul: Exactly, no centre. And as for the other things, it is also private. Every writer has to understand what his experience has been, understand what the best way of dealing with it is, and work with complete honesty - that is, ignoring all examples, doing it himself, like doing it for the first time, not copying.
Tarun J Tejpal is the editor of India's Outlook magazine.
Copyright (c) 1998 by Tarun J Tejpal, reprinted by special arrangement with Gillon Aitken Associates, [email protected]
Copyright © 1998 by Random House, Inc.