Naipaul interviewed

The Observer has an interview with Naipaul today. It begins with a delicious anecdote. When the head of the Swedish Academy called him at his home in England in October 2001 to tell him he had won the Nobel Prize, his wife picked up the phone and said he could not be disturbed: he was busy writing!

The interviewer, Robert McCrum, writes:

Everyone agrees that VS Naipaul is fully alive to his own importance. (A) volatile mixture of pride and insecurity illuminates everything about him. ‘I am the kind of writer,’ he once said, ‘that people think other people are reading.’

In the interview:

Naipaul says that A House for Mr Biswas (1961) is ‘of all my books, the one that is closest to me’. Its success marked the climax of his youthful career, and he believes that its two years’ gestation were ‘the most consuming, the most fulfilled, the happiest years of my life. They were my Eden.’

But though it was hailed as a masterpiece and sealed his reputation, which had started growing with his first novel, The Mystic Masseur (1957), there were some unfavourable reviews. Time magazine famously said:

Naipaul’s House, though built of excellent exotic materials, sags badly; economy, style, and a less elastic blueprint would have done wonders.

I finished reading A House for Mr Biswas for the second time a few days ago. So I know why it may not be everybody’s cup of tea. I myself have mixed feelings about Mr Biswas. I see myself in his ineffectuality. And then all that dialogue in Caribbean English can get a bit tiresome. Do people really speak like that? But it’s also a story of progress, of ambition and triumph over adversity. The son of a sugarcane plantation worker, Mr Biswas gets an education, starts life as a sign painter, becomes a journalist, buys a car, becomes a homeowner, sees his children get educated abroad. The success is tempered by failure. He loses his job, the house is jerrybuilt. But that is what makes the story all the more realistic and touching. It’s a great book about the immigrant experience. Not even in remote Trinidad do the Indians lose their Indiannness.

McCrum notes Naipaul isn’t liked by his fellow Caribbean Nobel Prize winner, the poet Derek Walcott, who said: ‘If Naipaul’s attitude toward negroes, with its nasty little sneers… was turned on Jews, for example, how many people would praise him for his frankness?’

Naipaul is a deeply polarising figure, reminds McCrum. Even after winning the Nobel Prize, he is still competitive. McCrum writes:

Naipaul questions me eagerly, and quite closely, about
Philip Roth and Salman Rushdie, affecting to know little of their
recent work. He says he does not enjoy meeting fellow writers. ‘Every
serious writer has his own way of looking. I think to run into somebody
with another way of looking at the same event, the same world, which is
not like yours, is very unsettling.’

Maybe, I suggest, there’s an element of competition, too? Naipaul
denies this. ‘No, I’ve never had any feeling of competition. I really
feel that X’s readers may not be my readers.’ Naipaul reveres his readers. To him, they are like the acolytes of a very special faith. Loyal, lifelong Naipaul readers are ‘pure gold’ to him…

He’s amused by the ephemeral world of celebrity. ‘Somebody wrote a story that I had children. It’s not true.’

Did he ever want children?

‘No, the opposite. I’m quite content with myself as I am. I don’t wish anyone to carry on my name or my genes. No, not at all.’

It’s a must-read interview, revealing of one of the greatest writers in the world.

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