Not easy to love | Daily News

Not easy to love

Once many moons ago, I read ‘Miguel Street’ and liked it. I read ‘A House for Mr. Biswas’ and liked it. Later on, while in university I read ‘A Bend in the River’, ‘In a Free State’ and ‘Guerrillas’. I didn’t like them as much as the previous books. But I didn’t dislike them either. And, until a few years ago, I confess I held on to the adolescent idea that, like Jane Austin, E.M Foster, George Orwell, V. S Naipaul too, (based on his early novels) was a lovable writer with heartwarming opinions.

I was wrong. The first glimpse I got of the magnitude of my wrong judgment was when I read the interview Isaac Chotiner had with Sir Vidia Naipaul some years ago. The first words the Nobel Laureate said to Chotiner was about the demise of Augustus.

“It was calamitous for me. I feel a deep, deep grief.” They were sitting in the spacious two-story London flat in Kensington where the author and his second wife, Nadira, lived (when they were not at their Wiltshire country residence). “Now that Augustus has died, I want to spend more time in London,” Sir Naipaul had continued, slowly picking at the meal Nadira had provided. “It is too painful to be [in Wiltshire]. I think of Augustus. He was the sum of my experiences. He had taken on my outlook, my way of living.”

He was visibly upset. Chotiner asked him when had Augustus passed away. Naipaul replied, “This last September,”. It was October 1, and Chotiner quite bravely offered the cliché about time healing all wounds. “No, no, the previous September 26th,” Naipaul explained, sounding deeply wounded. “A year ago. The terrible part of it is that people suggest to me that I get a new one, that I invite this one into the home I shared with Augustus. As if he should just be replaced so soon. It shows a lack of understanding.”

Augustus is dead. And the writer is grieving over the loss. What’s so strange about that? Nothing, except for the fact that Augustus is a cat and Naipaul didn’t grieve so much when his first wife, Patrica Hale passed away. She had battled breast cancer – alone. Instead of being by her bedside Naipaul left her for long periods, carrying out serious affairs with other women. Of her death he said, “It could be said that I killed her. It could be said. I feel a little bit that way.” The day after the cremation, he invited Nadira, a Pakistani journalist, to move into the Wiltshire home he had shared with his wife.

In the eyes of the well known American critic James Wood, Naipaul is “The public snob, the grand bastard.” Here’s how Wood describes his first encounter with Naipaul. “A pale woman, his secretary, showed me in to the sitting room of his London flat. Naipaul looked warily at me, offered a hand, and began an hour of scornful correction. I knew nothing, he said, about his birthplace, Trinidad; I possessed the usual liberal sentimentality. It was a plantation society. Did I know anything about his writing? He doubted it. The writing life had been desperately hard. But, I said, hadn’t his great novel, “A House for Mr. Biswas,” been acclaimed on its publication? “Look at the people’s choices for the best books of the sixties,” he said. “ ‘Biswas’ is not there.” His secretary brought coffee, and retired. Naipaul claimed that he had not even been published in America until the nineteen-seventies, “and then the reviews were awful—unlettered, illiterate, ignorant.” The phone rang, and kept ringing. “I am sorry,” Naipaul said in exasperation. “One is not well cared for here.” Only as the secretary showed me out, and novelist and servant briefly spoke to each other in the hall, did I realize that she was Naipaul’s wife.”

V.S. Naipaul’s
7 Rules For
Beginning Writers

1) Do not write long sentences. A sentence should not have more than ten or twelve words.

2) Each sentence should make a clear statement.It should add to the statement that went before. A good paragraph is a series of clear, linked statements.

3) Do not use big words. If your computer tells you that your average word is more than five letters long, there is something wrong. The use of small words compels you to think about what you are writing. Even difficult ideas can be broken down into small words.

4) Never use words whose meaning you are not sure of. If you break this rule you should look for other work.

5) The beginner should avoid using adjectives, except those of colour, size and number. Use as few adverbs as possible.

6) Avoid the abstract. Always go for the concrete.

7) Every day, for six months at least, practise writing in this way. Small words; short, clear, concrete sentences. It may be awkward, but it’s training you in the use of language. It may even be getting rid of the bad language habits you picked up at the university. You may go beyond these rules after you have thoroughly understood and mastered them.

Adding more fuel to the fire, Naipaul has also dismissed E. M. Forster as “an odious fraud and A Passage to India “a pretense” and “utter rubbish.” In 2011 in an interview at the Royal Geographic Society when asked if he considered any woman writer his literary match he replied: “I don’t think so.” He added, “I read a piece of writing and within a paragraph or two I know whether it is by a woman or not. I think [it is] unequal to me.” He said this was because of women’s “sentimentality, the narrow view of the world”. “And inevitably for a woman, she is not a complete master of a house, so that comes over in her writing too.”

No doubt, if a vote were conducted to pick the grumpiest old man of the literary world, V.S. Naipaul would be odds-on favourite to win. Yet, the very irritableness that some see as smug disdain others applaud as refreshing honesty.

Wood believes this is because there are two sides to Naipaul. “A hard side and a softer one. These two sides could be called the Wounder and the Wounded. The Wounder is by now well known—the source of fascinated hatred in the literary world and post-colonial academic studies. He disdains the country he came from: “I was born there, yes. I thought it was a mistake.”When he won the Nobel Prize, in 2001, he said it was “a great tribute to both England, my home, and India, the home of my ancestors.” Asked why he had omitted Trinidad, he said that he feared it would “encumber the tribute.” He is socially successful but deliberately friendless: “At school I had only admirers; I had no friends.”

“The Wounded Naipaul”, says Wood, “is the writer who returns obsessively to the struggle, shame, and impoverished fragility of his early life in Trinidad; to the unlikely journey he made from the colonial rim of the British Empire to its metropolitan center; and to the precariousness, as he sees it, of his long life in England—“a stranger here, with the nerves of the stranger,” as he puts it in “The Enigma of Arrival” (1987). Again and again, his sense of aggrieved encirclement expands to encompass others, and he manages, with neither vanity nor condescension, to blend his woundedness with theirs: the empire of one is colonized by his characters. They range from the major to the minor, from the educated to the almost illiterate, from the real to the fictional, but they are united by their homelessness.”

Born on August 17, 1932 in Chaguanas, Trinidad, where his ancestors had emigrated from India—his maternal grandfather, at the turn of the century, had traveled from that country as an indentured servant, Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul is yet another migrant with no firm roots. In his essay “Prologue to an Autobiography” from Finding the Center, he writes: “Half a writer’s work . . . is the discovery of his subject. And a problem for me was that my life had been varied, full of upheavals and moves: from grandmother’s Hindu house in the country, still close to the rituals and social ways of village India; to Port of Spain, the negro, and G.I. life of its streets, the other, ordered life of my colonial English school, which is called Queen’s Royal College, and then Oxford, London and the freelances’ room at the BBC. Trying to make a beginning as a writer, I didn’t know where to focus.”

After two failed attempts at novels and three months before his twenty-third birthday, Naipaul found his start in the childhood memory of a neighbor in Port of Spain. The memory provided the first sentence for Miguel Street, which he wrote over six weeks in 1955 in the BBC freelancers’ room, where he was working part-time editing and presenting a literary program for the Caribbean Service. The book would not be published until 1959, after the success of The Mystic Masseur(1957), which received the John Llewellyn Rhys Memorial Prize and The Suffrage of Elvira(1958), which was awarded the Somerset Maugham Award. A House of Mr. Biswas was published in 1961, and in 1971 Naipaul received the Booker Prize for In a Free State. He received a knighthood in 1990 for his service to literature.

There would have been a time when it would have been easy to sympathize with the Wounded Naipaul. In the letters he sent from Oxford to Trinidad he wrote, “I want to come top of my group. I have got to show these people that I can beat them at their own language.”

But alas, nowadays he spends so much time being disagreeable and superior, it is hard to remember his ‘woundedness.’ Nowadays, sadly, Vidia Naipaul does not do nice.

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