INTERVIEW: V S Naipaul talks to Farrukh Dhondy

Literary Review

(There’s some really funny stuff in here…)
V S Naipaul hasn’t been well. Feeling more comfortable with Indian doctors and medical provision than with the National Health Service, he has been in New Delhi for several months for treatment and recovery. Now he’s back in England and says he’s writing again.
I visit him in his Wiltshire cottage and the following interview is conducted in short periods over two days.
He’d like me, he says, to follow his own method of interviewing, which is to take notes in longhand as the subject speaks: he doesn’t trust tape-recorders. I don’t trust them either, and so have brought two with me, pocket-size, and made sure they have fresh batteries. I place them in the least obtrusive position on the dining table, at which we sit.
Augustus, the cat, periodically appears outside on the window sill as we speak, and demands to be let in. He is a more than usually imperious fellow and insists on attention from Vidia, who has a way of commanding him to sleep. He surprisingly obeys, curling up at our feet.
This is our second extended interview, again for the Literary Review. The first, in August 2001, was controversial: his comments on E M Forster, John Maynard Keynes and James Joyce were considered provocative. As we begin, I suggest that we stay off politics in this interview and he agrees.
Would you say luck has any part to play in the career and success of a writer?
I worked so hard for so many things. The luck came at the beginning when I was trying to get started. That day in the Langham Hotel, the BBC building where I was working, if it hadn’t occurred to me to write about the street in which I grew up in Port of Spain in Trinidad, I might have floundered for many years. If the people in the room – the freelancers’ room in the BBC – hadn’t encouraged me, I might never have got started. I felt I was doing it in my own way. It wasn’t all easy going – the book I was writing wasn’t published for four years. England had different ideas of writing then – from what I was doing. This has gone on right to this day.
Would you say you were writing outside the tradition of English literature?
That’s Leavis and Cambridge and all that – and it’s not important. What’s important is that England didn’t understand what I was doing. If it were my own territory it would be different, but I have no territory. England has not appreciated or acknowledged the work I have done. My task was to open up a territory of readership. It was very slow – too slow for me.
Were you conscious of trying to open up this territory of readership?
I always wrote for the smallest audience: my wife (Pat, and now Nadira), someone I knew at the BBC, my publishers and my editor at Deutsch.
Surely a book like Among the Believers, which entailed travels through the Muslim world, was written for a universal audience?
Since writing is a process of learning, writing that book was a process for me. It found a readership after it was published. It got into a lot of trouble in places like Harvard and MIT. There are some very wise people in these places who, in their wisdom, had no need to go to a country to find out what was going on there. They already knew what was to be known. I can’t stress this strongly enough – everything I discovered and wrote was done for myself. I didn’t know what on earth I was doing at MIT, but I had accepted their invitation to speak about the book and I found they were very concerned about Iran. I remember talking about the Iranian love of blood. When a man fell bleeding in a religious demonstration, people went and dipped their hands and pieces of cloth in his blood. The people I was with refused to believe it. This couldn’t happen. Oh God! How wise they were! There was an American paper which was going to serialise the book in three parts, but they cancelled.
Why?
They would have been told by the Wise People that it must be stopped. Twenty years later it may seem that these ideas were to be given to a waiting world – but they still had a hard time.
Even in the first book, Miguel Street, I was experimenting. I wanted it to be simple, new and pictorial – every sentence.
Did your experience of writing change as you went on?
My idea of writing developed as I wrote. I still have no big idea of writing. My only idea is that if you are doing non-fiction it should be truthful. The people about whom you write should themselves be able to see the truth of it. After the book we’ve spoken about, Among the Believers, was published, people wrote from Iran to say I’d missed the point. I had written about driving in Tehran. It’s dangerous and precarious. The car I was in returned from every journey with the scrapings of paint from other cars. And they picked on the same observation when I read extracts to a Harvard audience. They didn’t like that at Harvard at all. Harvard said it was ‘colonial’ to write the truth.
Do you think you met particularly bigoted or silly people at these universities? The Wise Ones?
I don’t think so. I think these universities have passed their peak. The very idea of the university may be finished. In Oxford, for a long time, they were producing divines. Then it took a turn and the University began to produce smart people. The idea of learning came quite late, in the early nineteenth century perhaps, and it went on some way into the twentieth. Now, apart from sciences, there seems to be no purpose to a university education. The Socialists want to send everybody to these places. I feel that these places ought to be wrapped up and people should buy their qualifications at the Post Office.
Not including scientific qualifications?
No, those must remain. But the Humanities – they seem to me to be worthless disciplines.
Though you just said that your ideas of writing developed as you yourself wrote, in the past you’ve spoken and written about the function of writing in a culture, for example in Russia …
… and in France. These ideas have themselves developed. They didn’t come to me from the start. I was too ignorant. Say when I began to read Maupassant I was too ignorant to appreciate him fully. Some wisdom is needed, some experience is needed before you see a culture and you see the writers more clearly. If you were talking to me twenty-five years ago I would have said Balzac was the greatest French writer. Now I say Maupassant – a very great man. I began to reread Balzac and had a certain amount of trouble with it. I was disappointed – with myself really. I came across the Maupassant stories, all the stories – 1,100 pages. They were in chronological order and quite well translated. It was an education. In the beginning he writes very carefully, not wishing to put a foot wrong. In the middle he is more secure. He does things instinctively and well, and then, near the end of his life, his thoughts are about death, and the pieces get shorter and they are very, very affecting. There is a character in a Chekhov play who talks about Maupassant and says his talent is almost supernatural, and I have to agree with that, because in nearly every story there is a complete life that is being displayed. And there are so many stories. You wonder where he got the material and it seems so natural and easy. When you read, you can analyse it and see his method. It’s very precise geographically and he always gives people a name – very important. There is a line of emotion in his writing, which varies as he writes so you follow the emotion of the writer rather than the banality of how the narrative is going to end. There’s no one like him, I think. There is the brutality of his short life. He began writing when he was thirty, and then in ten years it was almost all over. He was in pain, then mad, so everything he did was done in ten years. He must have worked all the time and yet with a kind of ease. It is a supernatural talent. And when you read, you ask yourself what is the country that’s giving him all this wonderful material and you have to see, after a while, that it isn’t a country that’s giving him the material. He, by his vision, is creating a country. It’s strange. When we read Maupassant at school he seemed very provincial, very French. That is still true, but the work is for everybody. This can’t be said of English writers. (We can leave Dickens out of that consideration.) English writing is very much of England, for the people of England, and is not meant to travel too far.
Which writers would you say particularly fall into this Englishness?
Hardy. An unbearable writer.
Why?
He can’t write. He doesn’t know how to compose a paragraph, no gift of narrative. I would say that the Romantic feminine fiction has that quality.
Even the great ones? Jane Austen?
What trouble I have with Jane Austen! Jane Austen is for those people who wish to be educated in English manners. If that isn’t part of your mission, you don’t know what to do with this material.
There was a conference at Bath a few years ago and I was invited. I was a very bad conference guest – I didn’t say a word. But they gave me a copy of Jane Austen’s novel set in Bath – Northanger Abbey. In my recent illness I’ve been looking at books I haven’t read before so I picked it up.
I thought halfway through the book, Here am I, a grown man reading about this terrible vapid woman and her so-called love life – she calls it ‘love’, having seen this fellow once. I said to myself, What am I doing with this material? This is for somebody else, really. It’s for someone down the road, not for me.
Are you then surprised that people make so much of her?
Yes, it purely depends on political power in the world. If you come from England when your country is important, then this kind of nonsensical writing becomes important for you. If the country had failed in the nineteenth century no one would have been reading Jane Austen. The books would have been about failure. They would have demonstrated the reasons for failure. I don’t want to be confused, in what I am saying about Jane Austen, with people from the Wise places, the Very Wise People who say that she represents a great hypocrisy, writing in this way about affairs of the heart and young people while there are the slaves toiling in the plantations of the Caribbean. What hypocrisy! That’s the kind of thing the Wise People do say. And it’s very foolish, because if they knew a bit more, beyond their little disciplines, they would know that the slave trade, the British slave trade, was abolished in 1807 and this wish to talk about sensibility, etc, was part of the climate that made this abolition of the trade possible and later, very quickly, in 1834, made the abolition of slavery itself possible. The idea of refinement, manner, that was the climate.
So Jane Austen has some effect?
She didn’t have an effect, she was part of it. She reflects it. If we compare it with the ancient Romans, they were able to talk about the good life while encouraging and having the most brutal kind of slavery all around them. It never occurred to them to question the life around them. Cicero made jokes about slaves being treated badly or people in the arena dying horribly. There were different cruel tasks at different times of day. A criminal would be sent out without any weapons to fight an armed man. So there was no fight really and that was a simple kind of excitement for the crowd. It was Seneca who got as far as saying you must remember that the slave is a man. He never got much further than that. Roman slavery was brutal. England was the first country to abolish slavery. We must bear that in mind. We don’t have to read Jane Austen’s novels, but we must recognise that those manners and that sensibility which she writes about were part of the enlightenment that brought about the end of slavery.
Why do you exempt Dickens from your judgement on English writers?
I read some of the very early essays a short time ago: Sketches by Boz – they were good. There’s so much rubbish in Dickens. Wordiness, too many words, repetitiveness. He was trying to do something, but by God the African never had a worse enemy. In one of his essays…
Which essay?
I can’t recall. The Wise People will tell you, if they haven’t abolished it. He hated black people. Strange, eh?
Do you judge the British writers of the twentieth century in the same way?
That’s very interesting. It’s true of Waugh. The idea of an international readership doesn’t enter until quite late. H G Wells, writing his early short stories, is not writing for people outside. He is taking a lot of the cliches of imperialism and making the stories – good writer though he is. If you read the stories from the 1890s they have African voodoo and Indian priests, etc. He hasn’t been out of the country, he is just dealing in received ideas. Russell was universal, even though he didn’t write fiction. He wrote very simply, very clearly, explaining philosophical ideas.
He had a vast readership in English-speaking India.
The History of Western Philosophy? Yes. But people don’t have to write for the world. They must write for themselves, for their friends.
Doesn’t that deny books their significance?
No. No. In great periods, what writers write for themselves travels. Very often it travels because the world is so retarded generally it has very little of its own to look to. I don’t mean people having a message for the outside world. The writer, by the nature of the interests expressed in the book, can win the attention of other people. Take American writing. Mark Twain is universal, in that anybody can read his work and find matter, whereas Fitzgerald is local to America. In Twain’s work we can find humour, a tone of voice that appears to talk to all people, and then there’s his attitude to his material. He is not exalting his material. You see your recent Indian writers exalt their material: they are writing about daddy and mammy and chacha (uncle) and chachi (aunty) and they are exalting their material. Critics reading their books, poor innocent critics reading Indian books, might come to the conclusion, ‘My God! X, Y or Z comes from a very grand Indian family, we didn’t know about this!’
We don’t only find this in Indian writers.
You only have to look at that dreadful American man Henry James. The worst writer in the world actually. He never went out in the world. Yes, he came to Europe and he ‘did’ and lived the writer’s life. He never risked anything. He never exposed himself to anything. He travelled always as a gentleman. When he wrote English Hours about what he was seeing in England – written for an American magazine – this man would write about the races at Epsom and do it all from a distance. He never thought he should mingle with the crowd and find out what they were there for, or how they behaved. He did it all from the top of a carriage or the top of a coach. A lot of his writing is like that. And he exalts his material because he thinks that this subject matter he has alighted on – the grandeur of Europe and the grandeur of American new money – is unbeatable. Elizabeth Hardwick said to me about Henry James many years ago, ‘What’s he going on about? These people he is talking about are just Americans!’ It has the effect that young American people still think they can ‘do a Henry James’ – come to Europe and write a book like Henry James.
You couldn’t say the same about Hemingway, whom young Americans also try to follow. He did mingle with people.
Hemingway didn’t know where he was, ever, really. He was so busy being an American and that was his subject matter. You wouldn’t have any idea, from Hemingway or Fitzgerald and their stories or writings about Paris, that Paris was in the most terrible way between the wars. They just talked about the cafes, the drinks and oysters and things like that. They don’t see the larger thing outside. I find it very difficult to read that kind of writing or to take it seriously. It’s for other people – people down the road…
We’ve come across them before…
This idea of Gay Paris and all of that, that’s what they wrote about. The catastrophe of the wars, the death of men – they weren’t aware of that. Nowadays they don’t go to France to write about it any more. Because when a place is OK, as France now is, it is very hard to know how to write about it. It’s easier to go to places where you can stand out against the local people more easily. You go to India, you go to Nepal. There’s a whole crowd of them. You can scarcely get into the travel agents for these people pushing their way into writing books. You don’t know. The books are sent to me in any number every month. They wouldn’t be sent to you because you’ve not written about India in that way.
No. You think the writing of these Europeans or Englishmen is consciously dedicated to standing out from the population?
People do the expatriate novel not only about India, but also – in the old days – about Italy, about Greece, Mexico and Latin America. They themselves begin to be defined by the background so they don’t have to do any more work.
Explain.
Take Graham Greene and Our Man in Havana. He doesn’t have to define his people, his lead expatriate characters. They are defined by what they see around them – Captain Segura, the police, and the general seediness of the place. When I was reviewing books in 1958-63, those little expatriate books came in all the time. People who want to put words in italics: senores and senoras, so it looks like real writing.
This exaltation of the material, the pretences in Indian writing – is this a recent trend, or was it always so?
No. I don’t think R K Narayan exalted his material or that Mulk Raj Anand, writing in the Thirties and later, did. I think it’s occurred with the latest crop of writers, who have been encouraged by all kinds of foolish people to do these family sagas, and it’s so bad for India, the encouragement of this rubbish. Because writing isn’t that. It shouldn’t be about cracking yourself up so that people on the outside say, ‘We knew Indians were grand people after all. Kipling didn’t say so, and others didn’t say so, but here we have the evidence.’
You know and I know there’s no such thing as Indian grandeur. Here these boys are doing it, all in a great rush since the Nineties, and it’s as bogus as hell. It really implies that they have never looked outside their little tawdry family circle.
Why do you think this trend has taken hold of Indian writing?
The instinct to boast is prevalent among people who’ve suffered. They boast easily. (I have a lot of boasters in my family.) Or perhaps that’s too grand a way of looking at it, actually. Put it this way: it makes it easier to have a point of view if you can boast like that. There’s only one Indian writer, in my little experience, who has not boasted. I am thinking of Bond – Ruskin Bond. I am talking now of his autobiography, which is called Scenes from a Writer’s Life.
Why do you find him fascinating – or at least free of this bogus attitude?
I have read nothing like that from India or anywhere else. It’s very simple. Everything is underplayed, and the truths of the book come rather slowly at you. He is writing about solitude, tremendous solitude. He himself doesn’t say it. He leaves it all to you to pick up. I haven’t read another book about solitude from India. In a way, from this great subcontinent full of people, to write a book about solitude is quite an achievement. I was very moved by his book. He comes from a kind of darkness. There is a darkness all around him: a broken family in the background. There’s a love for the father. He stays with the father after the family breaks down. He is quite a little boy. His father has a stamp collection. It’s a serious stamp collection, a great family possession. Typical of Bond that he should put in a letter from his father, just saying ‘the last letter from my father’ – just prints it. Very affecting, very educated and sensitive, the letter. And then he just says: ‘Two weeks later my father died.’ That’s the way he does it. After his father’s death he looks for the stamp collection and he never finds it. It pains one to read about it. He does it in the Bond way, in a sentence or two. His father was in the RAF – fell ill somewhere near Calcutta, and probably died in the hospital. And the stamp collection was never found. Dead men’s effects, you can do what you want with them because there’s no family coming to look at them either.
Tragic?
Yes, but the writer doesn’t make much of it. There’s a sentence in the book which tells you what the book’s about: ‘I was alone, I was lonely, but I was not afraid.’ Whereas other Indian writers have their elaborate family structure to write about, Bond has nothing, just a few individuals here and there. Very few. So he’s an orphan actually.
Does that give him a unique standpoint in India?
I think so. But there’s some personal quality there. His father called him Ruskin after the English social commentator and critic. He prints some letters at the back of the book from Diana Athill, that very gifted woman who was at Andre Deutsch and made Deutsch an important publisher. Her point is that he can take this paring-away of inessentials too far. He must understand that you’ve got to give the reader time to sink into a new mood or a new setting. This is his way of writing, though. He doesn’t, as it were, make a meal of events like the death of his father. The book ends with a little letter to his dead father. He tells his father about the ride to the old school and how it’s changed. He says he had a dream about a friend of his. I think he appears as a big man and the friend was still small, and he asks: ‘I wonder when I dream of you I will be a big man or a child?’ Very moving.
He has, by and large, been ignored as an Indian writer. The attention has gone recently to the imitators and boasters. Why do you think that is?
I don’t know the fiction but I think this autobiography is quite extraordinary. He has a kind of small following in India…
(see the link below for the entire interview)
…Will you tell me what you are writing now?
I can’t begin to write again till I am well. You can’t write if you are not well. That’s why I exercised so much those years, to keep myself fit for writing. If I become well again – I am on my feet now – I might want to write. My writing has always been dependent on energy – travelling, moving around. You can say that the books radiate energy. Do you think that’s true, Farrukh? If I can get well, properly well – I am seventy-three and something, and you might feel what’s the point of getting well if there’s such a short time to go? There’s a story about old folk at a memorial service, I think in Paris, one of these French occasions. I think it was for Malraux. Freezing weather, freezing weather. A couple of old men there. One of them said, ‘This has been going on for so long, we don’t have to go home – we just stay here.’
You didn’t actually tell me what you are writing.
Let’s leave it like that.


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