Good old writers

Who says old geezers can’t write? Some of them die with the sharpest minds. That’s certainly true of the literary critic Frank Kermode, who has just died at the age of 90.

Reading about his death yesterday, I turned to his essays published in the London Review of Books. You can’t tell his age from his essay on TS Eliot published in May this year. It is the work of an academic writing at the top of his form.

There are other old writers who have not lost their powers.

Let’s begin with the journalists.

Continue reading “Good old writers”

Naipaul and his women

The World Is What It Is by Patrick French

The book ends with Naipaul in tears leaning against a taxi cab after scattering the ashes of his wife, Pat, in a wood before returning to his home in Wiltshire. He sang the hymn, All Things Bright and Beautiful, he told his biographer, Patrick French, who writes, “Afterwards they (Naipaul and his new wife, Nadira) went back in the  taxi to the empty house. Enough.”

That’s the last word in this remarkable book which traces the life of Naipaul from his childhood in Trinidad to his present eminence. The narrative ends with Pat dying of cancer in 1996, five years before Naipaul won the Nobel prize, but he had already won every other honour by then including the title, Lord Naipaul. Her touching belief in his genius ever since they met in Oxford in the 1950s had been vindicated. But it didn’t bring them happiness. They had been married for more than 40 years, and yet they had not kissed for more than 20 years. That’s what Naipaul wrote in a journal he started on January 30, 1996 while she was being treated for cancer.

The last kiss — after 20 years

“She kissed me when I arranged her to sleep,”  he wrote. “She held me and kissed me. Which she hadn’t done for twenty years and more.”

She died less than a week later, on February 3.

Six days later, Nadira came to stay with Naipaul and they got married six weeks later, on April 15.

The marriage had been arranged while Pat was still alive. Naipaul had met Nadira in Pakistan while gathering material for Beyond Belief, the sequel to Among the Believers, and asked her to marry him, telling her his wife was dying of cancer.

While his wife lay dying, he was thinking of  the future. That was Naipaul. One of the greatest contemporary writers, but something seems to be missing from many of his books. How much love and tenderness do we see between a man and a woman in A House for Mr Biswas, The Enigma of Arrival, Half a Life or Magic Seeds?

The World Is What It Is takes its title from a quote by Naipaul reflecting a Darwinian view of life: “The world is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it.”

The biography depicts the hardships Naipaul suffered to succeed as a writer. Until the mid-70s when he changed his agent and left his old publisher, Andre Deutsch, he earned less than eight thousand pounds a year on average though he was already regarded as Britain’s foremost writer. The Enigma of Arrival documents the insecurities he suffered.

Pat and Margaret

But he was supported by a loving wife – and then came his mistress, Margaret, whom he met in Argentina in 1972, and with whom he had a tempestuous affair till 2005. It was Margaret who accompanied him as he travelled around the world, writing India: A Wounded Civilization, A Congo Diary, Among the Believers, A Turn in the South, India: A Million Mutinies Now – just as Pat had done earlier.

Pat suffered silently; she did not mention the name of Margaret even in her diary, referring to her instead as “that woman”. 

Margaret suffered too. Naipaul would angrily dismiss her and send her home whenever they quarrelled during their travels. Her marriage broke down under the strain of her affair with Naipaul who, she realized, would never marry her – and yet she would go back to him every time he wanted her.

Naipaul ill-used both the women. He destroyed Pat’s self-esteem. She became a nervous wreck, blaming herself for everything. What pushed her over the edge was a New Yorker interview where he admitted he used to visit prostitutes.

Pat, who was being treated for cancer at the time, never recovered from that humiliation, said Naipaul. He told Patrick French:

“I think that consumed her. I think she had all the relapses and everything after that. All the remission ended…

She suffered. It could be said that I killed her. It could be said. I feel a little bit that way.”

Continue reading “Naipaul and his women”

Writing on sex and death at 91

Diana Athill is 91 years old and won the 2008 Costa prize for biography for her memoir, Somewhere Towards The End, where she talks about her love affairs, her work as a book editor, and what it means to be growing old. She helped Andre Deutsch – who was briefly her lover — establish his publishing house and edited writers such as VS Naipaul, John Updike, Philip Roth, Norman Mailer and Jean Rhys.

It was she who said when Naipaul left Andre Deutsch after she criticised his novel, Guerrillas: “It was as though the sun came out. I didn’t have to like Vidia any more.”

Click on this link for a YouTube video of an extraordinary interview she gave to the BBC on sex, old age and death. There she says:

When I was young, no one wanted to talk about death at all. Everyone was in full reaction against Victorian morbidity. And no one went to funerals… I hadn’t seen a dead body until I was 17… But it has completely changed now. It is as though a taboo has been removed. I suppose it’s because, with all getting old, everyone is suddenly thinking,‘It could be me next.’ I have found that, once this book was written, it became to my astonishment one book I have written that has really sold like hotcakes.

Is there a secret to successful ageing?

I would say it is a matter of pure luck. If your health holds out, there is no reason why it should be horrid…

I had a better time since I was 80.


Because in a way things matter much less. You don’t mind what people think about you. You are not embarrassed so easily… And when anything particularly good happens, it comes like a super treat because you weren’t expecting it. This book doing well has been for me an enormous treat from beginning to end. Still is. Look at me here (smiling)…

People ask quite a lot about when did sex stop being interesting. That rather obsesses people. Because when you are still a sexual being, the thought of stopping being a sexual being is quite painful. But of course, when it happens, if you stop wanting something, you don’t want it any more, so if it’s not there, you don’t mind.

Sex, Andre Deutsch and Philip Roth

She had sex in her 60s but “it was done with” by the way she was 70, she says in another BBC interview, available on audio.

There she talks about her relationship with Andre Deutsch.  She found it annoying that he used to stay up at night reading The Times newspaper. He was extremely self-centred, she says. But they continued working together.

She also talks about how Philip Roth was dropped by Andre Deutsch for poor sales. Roth went on to write his biggest bestseller, Portnoy’s Complaint.

Naipaul’s seven rules for aspiring writers

VS Naipaul advised aspiring writers to practise what he had learnt from his father, says Patrick French in his biography of Naipaul, The World Is What It Is. 

When the Indian website Tehelka asked Naipaul to suggest some rules for aspiring writers, this was the advice he gave:

  1. Do not write long sentences. A sentence should not have more than 10 or 12 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 adjectives as well.
  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.

Rules Naipaul picked up from his father

Naipaul was influenced by his father and his suggestions “owed much to (his) Pa’s instruction”, says French.

Seepersad Naipaul, who inspired his son to write A House For Mr Biswas, was a Trinidad journalist and writer himself. He had published Gurudeva and Other Indian Tales  at his own expense in Trinidad in 1943, when Naipaul was 11 years old. Naipaul thought highly of his father as a writer. French says:

His writing style formed early. At the age of only eleven, he was given his own private epic by his father, and took it as his model; his later achievement came out of this restriction.

Naipaul and The Enigma of Arrival

Reviewing Patrick French’s biography of Naipaul in the Times Literary Supplement, AN Wilson is absolutely right when he says:

  • Naipaul is one of the best journalists;
  • The Enigma of Arrival is a masterpiece.

The Enigma bored me when I first read it many years ago, but now I realise how good it is. Just don’t approach it as a novel. It is slow, there is no plot development, no colourful characters.

But few writers have written so intimately about how they developed as writers.

Naipaul writes about his journey from the Caribbean to England, then selling off his house in England to go back to the New World to write about it, and finally returning to England. He writes about his insecurity when a publisher rejected the book, expecting an advance from which he had gone off to the Caribbean and North America. Running short of money, unable to concentrate on a book he had started writing in Canada, he decides to return to England as he has no audience in America.

Back in England, he finds himself a congenial environment and is able to write again. He describes the experience:

Everything about the house was welcoming and good… I felt protected, isolated, far from every wounding thing I had known. For the first time in many weeks I felt at ease.

That afternoon… I looked for the first time for weeks at the manuscript I had tried to get started in Victoria… I found it better than I had during the writing. I even saw the sentence where it had come alive — a sentence written out of concentration, from within the mood created by the words. That critical creative moment had been missed by me in Victoria, perhaps because of my anxiety about what was to follow in the writing; and perhaps as well because of my anxiety about what was to follow Victoria.

Now, recognizing the validity of that good sentence, I surrendered to the pictures the words created, the other pictures they trailed…

Writing strengthened me; it quelled anxiety. And now writing restored me again. My book was given back to me. I began to write slowly, day by day…

Without the book, I do not know how I would have gone through that difficult time. With me, everything started from writing.Writing had brought me to England, had sent me away from England; had given me a vision of romance; had nearly broken me with disappointment. Now it was writing, the book, that gave savour, possibility, to each day, and took me on night after night.

I had intended to stay for a week or so in Gloucester. I stayed nearly three months, unwilling, apart from everything else, to cut myself off from the magic of the place.

Writing doesn’t get more intimate than this. One can see the writer at work and his creative process. 

Written after his sister’s death

The Enigma of Arrival is a must-read for anyone interested in writers and their work. It has been called a thinly veiled autobiography. But the last section, A Ceremony of Farewell, is undisguised autobiography. Here Naipaul writes about the death of his younger sister, Sati, in 1984. He writes about leaving his Wiltshire home and flying back to Trinidad for the religious ceremony officiated by a pundit who happens to be his cousin, the son of his father’s brother. He writes about the Indian community in Trinidad and how they provided the material for his earliest stories. And then, on the last page, he reveals why he chose to add this account of his sister’s death to The Enigma of Arrival. He had been thinking of writing such a book for years, he says, but he wrote it only after his sister’s death. He explains:

It forced us to look on death. It forced me to face the death I had been contemplating at night, in my sleep; it fitted a real grief where melancholy had created a vacancy, as if to prepare me for the moment. It showed me life and man as the mystery, the true religion of men, the grief and the glory. And that was when, faced with a real death, and with this new wonder about men, I laid aside my drafts and hesitations and began to write very fast about Jack (a character in The Enigma of Arrival) and his garden.

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:

Continue reading “Naipaul interviewed”

Naipaul on “the last great Indian kingdom”

I am reading William Dalrymple’s City of Djinns after finishing VS Naipaul’s Magic Seeds. The two books couldn’t be more different. Dalrymple’s book is a delightful read, rich in anecdotes about modern Delhi and loving evocations of its past. Dalrymple admires the Muslims who ruled Delhi for centuries for their beautiful buildings, their love of poetry, music and the arts, the courtliness of their manners and the sophistication of their society which was hedonistic and given to sexual pleasures. He shows the beauty of Muslim India. Naipaul, on the contrary, shows how destructive it was.

He does it almost as an aside in his novel. Magic Seeds is the sequel to Half a Life. Willie Chandran is encouraged by his radical sister in Berlin to join Maoist guerillas in India and ends up in prison, but is eventually released and returns to London. There is a long account of his guerilla activities, his prison days, how and why he is released and his life in London. But there are a couple of pages early in the book where Willie, in south India, meets Joseph, an academic who is a Maoist sympathiser, who brings him up to speed about local history.

Joseph tells him about the destruction of the Hindu kingdom of Vijaynagar by the Muslims in the 16th century. It was total destruction. There is still Old Delhi, Taj Mahal, the Red Fort as well as numerous other places dating back to Muslim rule. But only the ruins remain of Vijaynagar, in what is now the state of Karnataka, the capital of which is Bangalore. Even the Indian historians I read in my school and college days had little to say about Vijaynagar.

I have no idea why Vijaynagar was neglected. Naipaul has written about it before. His anger is almost palpable here, where Joseph describes the destruction to Willie:

All the land of India is sacred. But here we are on especially sacred ground. We are on the site of the last great Indian kingdom, and it was the site of a catastrophe. Four hundred years ago the Muslim invaders ganged up on it and destroyed it… They levelled the capital city. It was a rich and famous city, known to early European travellers. They killed the priests, the philosophers, the artisans, the architects, the scholars… The only people they left behind were the serfs in the villages, and they parcelled them out among themselves. This military defeat was terrible. You cannot understand the degree to which the victors won and the losers lost. Hitler would have called it a war of annihilation, a war without limits and restraints, and this one succeeded to a remarkable degree. There was no resistance. The serfs in the villages policed themselves. They were of various low castes, and there is no caste hatred greater than that of the low for the low, one sub-caste for another. Some ran before and after the horses of their lords. Some did the scavenging. Some did the gravedigging. Some offered their women. All of them referred to themselves as slaves. All of them were underfed. That was a matter of policy. It was said that if you fed a slave well he would want to bite you…

Oh. And they were taxed and taxed. There were forty kinds of taxes… this was the origin of our sacred Indian poverty, the poverty that India could offer to the world. Thirty years after the destruction of the last Indian kingdom the conquerors built a big gate of victory. That gate of victory is now an Indian heritage site. The destroyed city has been forgotten…

Dalrymple took exception to Naipaul’s “failure to recognise Islam’s contribution to India” in an article in the Guardian.

Paul Theroux, Singapore and Naipaul

Paul Theroux is in Singapore, planning to write a sequel to The Great Railway Bazaar, reported The Straits Times yesterday. I can’t recall what he wrote about Singapore in his famous book about the various trains he rode on an epic journey from London to Tokyo and back. I was more interested then in what he had to say about the Indian railways and the Trans-Siberian Express.

But Theroux has a Singapore connection. The American from Massachusetts taught English at what was then the University of Singapore — now the National University of Singapore — from 1968 to 1971.

His former students didn’t speak well of him, said The Straits Times. That surprised him, it added. He should never have been a university teacher, said local poet and academic Kirpal Singh, adding he was much better as “a personal coach, sharing stories during lectures and over a few drinks with a small group of students”. He cut a dashing figure, said Singh, and girls were attracted to the young lecturer — Theroux was in his late 20s when he came here.

His experiences were not entirely happy.

“I was essentially fired,” Theroux told The Straits Times. His contract wasn’t renewed, it added.

What the newspaper didn’t say is that Theroux was already bored with teaching. He wrote his fifth novel, Jungle Lovers, in Singapore and decided to become a full-time writer.

He moved to London in 1972 and hasn’t looked back. Saint Jack, his novel about an American brothel-keeper in Singapore, came out in 1973 and made into a film by Peter Bogdanovich, the hotshot director of The Last Picture Show, What’s Up, Doc? and Paper Moon, in 1979. It was banned in Singapore, where it was filmed. But Singapore is a tiny market and Theroux was on a roll. The Great Railway Bazaar published in 1975 became an international bestseller and in 1981 he wrote his best-known novel, The Mosquito Coast.

I haven’t read Saint Jack but enjoyed his travelogues, The Great Railway Bazaar, The Old Patagonian Express, The Kingdom By The Sea, Riding The Iron Rooster.   

He can be acerbic but is immensely readable like his former friend, VS Naipaul. They first met at Makarere University in Uganda, where Theroux taught before coming to Singapore. Naipaul, who went to the Ugandan university as a visiting scholar, was already famous then for his novel, A House for Biswas. He wasn’t keen on academics either and spent time drinking, whingeing and doing his own writing. So says Theroux in Sir Vidia’s Shadow, the book he wrote after falling out with Naipaul. It’s a bitter book. He portrays Naipaul as rude, arrogant and a bit of sponger. But he admits there was a time when he looked up to Naipaul as a writer.

Naipaul won the Nobel Prize in 2001, three years after Sir Vidia’s Shadow came out. So in a way Naipaul had the last laugh.

But Theroux, now on his second marriage (again like Naipaul) and living in Hawaii, is still going strong. He celebrated his 65th birthday on April 10. The father of two — the elder son born in Uganda, the younger in Singapore — spoke to The Straits Times about his healthy lifestyle.

“I’ve written 40 or so books — could I have done that if I didn’t have a good night’s sleep, good diet or exercise?” he asked.

“I don’t smoke. I hardly drink. I’m a healthy person,” he said.

“If you  want to be productive, you need to be healthy.”

Pinter on Pinter

“I have often been asked how my plays come about. I cannot say. Nor can I ever sum up my plays, except to say that this is what happened. That is what they said. That is what they did.

“Most of the plays are engendered by a line, a word or an image. The given word is often shortly followed by the image. I shall give two examples of two lines which came right out of the blue into my head, followed by an image, followed by me.

“The plays are The Homecoming and Old Times. The first line of The Homecoming is ‘What have you done with the scissors?’ The first line of Old Times is ‘Dark.’

“In each case I had no further information…”

Those are the words with which playwright Harold Pinter (above) begins his speech accepting the Nobel prize for literature this year.

Forbidden by doctors from going to Stockholm to receive the 10 million crown ($1.2 million) literature prize, 75-year-old Pinter, who has been battling cancer for years, sent a video recording showing him in a wheelchair with his legs under a red blanket, reports Reuters.

His frailty and hoarse voice added to the drama of a speech peppered with the potent silences of his plays like The Birthday Party and The Caretaker, which gave rise to the term “Pinteresque”, it adds.

It turns into a savage attack on the US, and I don’t like that at all, but the early parts are interesting where he talks about his writings. Anyone interested can read the complete text on the Guardian web site.

My favourite speech by a Nobel literature prize winner was delivered by VS Naipaul in Stockholm on Dec 7, 2001. In his speech, titled Two Worlds, he spoke about growing up in Trinidad, his Indian ancestry, and his moving to Britain and his writer’s life. It will be appreciated by anyone interested in writers or the colonial influence.