ALMOST NO WRITER starts from nowhere. The writer nearly always has a godparent, sometimes several, who guides his early work, helps him find a voice. Lesser writers, of course, never find a voice. They begin by imitation, and then end in nonentity. It is not with them that we are concerned. V S Naipaul is a great writer, one of the few great writers still living and employing our language. I would say – he might disagree – that he had two godparents, Dickens and Conrad. All that he had learnt from Dickens he had absorbed and, as it were, discarded before he wrote his comic masterpiece, A House for Mr Biswas. The labour of writing that book has been more than once described. And in this collection of essays and remarks about writing, Naipaul includes his preface to the Knopf edition of 1983. ‘The original idea was simple, even formal: to tell the story of a man like my father, and for the sake of narrative shape, to tell the story of the life as the story of the acquiring of the simple possessions by which the man is surrounded at his death. In the writing the book changed. It became the story of a man’s search for a house and all that the possession of one’s own house implies.’
Just as Dickens rehearsed his own childhood over and over again (making it the stuff of David Copperfield, of Great Expectations, of Little Dorrit and of so much more), so in this book of essays, Naipaul returns repeatedly to his childhood in Trinidad, and to his journalist father, Seepersad Naipaul, whose aspirations to be a writer shaped his own, and whose reverent attitude to literature determined the sort of writer Naipaul was destined to become. In a fascinating early prologue, he tells us that his vocation to be a writer came very young – he was no more than eleven – but also, and this was the crucial fact, he was not much of a reader. And, though he liked acquiring the appurtenances of the writer’s art (Waterman’s ink, notebooks and so on), he hardly wrote at all.
It was not until after, as a scholarship boy, he had come to Oxford, done his degree, gone down and begun to work in London for the BBC Caribbean Service and to live a life of poverty, that Naipaul started to write. One day, in a BBC room, on a BBC typewriter, he wrote some words which he had heard years before in Port of Spain: ‘Every morning when he got up Hat would sit on the banister of his back verandah and shout across, “What happening there, Bogart?”‘
The essay in which he describes going back, years later, to meet Bogart, is especially moving, and, of course, funny.
Since that beginning, as well as being the Dickensian fantasist and comedian, plundering his past for richly comic effects, Naipaul has been the bleakly pessimistic, mournful observer of the post-colonial scene. Mv own first encounter with his work is indicative of how disturbing he is to very many, both who read and who do not read him. My father (for Naipaul’s father-obsession prompts one to a version of one’s own), born at the beginning of the twentieth century, was in some ways a kindly, liberal Englishman. When I say he was a Liberal, that was what he sometimes voted, and that was how he regarded himself, but like most men of his generation he was impenitently racist, and patronising, in his attitudes to those of different cultures and classes. (The paradox not merely of him, but of his generation, was captured for me by his use of the word ‘Jew-boy’ to describe those whom, at great and unnecessary danger to himself, he had driven to Prague to rescue after the Munich Agreement, hiding them in the boot of his car until they were out of reach of the Gestapo.) It was An Area of Darkness, Naipaul’s non-fiction account of his journeys in India, that my father was reading one day in the mid 1960s, howling, weeping with laughter. I was in my teens and I was eager to read the book when he had finished with it. It made me laugh, too, but I was of a different generation; priggish enough to think that there was something treacherous in an Indian who could write a book about India and make someone of my father’s generation laugh at Indians, or laugh in that way. It was as if a Jew had written a book about Jew-boys.
Treachery is certainly part of any good writer’s make-up. And if Dickens was the godfather of Naipaul’s comic novels, Joseph Conrad was perhaps the figure who guided his non-fictional accounts of the post-colonial scene. As in the case of Dickens, Naipaul is not the sort of writer who remains enslaved to his early inspirations. Conrad is deftly left behind in an essay in this collection – one of the best things in the book, and one of the best things ever written about Conrad. But Conrad’s despondency about the colonial situation, Conrad’s sense of the writer as an essential outsider, and, yes, Conrad’s racism are all catalysts which we can recognise in Naipaul’s later work, his saeva indignatio, especially about the Muslim world, and his merciless ability to snapshot Orientals behaving absurdly or Africans returning to what he calls the bush.
If An Area of Darkness was a comic masterpiece, India: A Wounded Civilization and Beyond Belief offer tragic counterpoises.
Naipaul’s seriousness about being a writer, his agonised and yet amused tone of voice, his sheer competence at that never-to-be-taken-for-granted art of arranging sentences in the best order, choosing the appropriate epithet, are fully on display in every sentence in this book. He has one of those voices to which one could listen for ever. One of my own personal favourites among his novels is The Enigma of Arrival, in which nothing really happens at all. It is simply about Naipaul living in the country with Stephen Tennant as a neighbour, and it is punctuated with some tragicomic snapshots of visiting friends. And yet the prose is hypnotic. It is most certainly about something – and the something is explained in the title. It is about arriving, becoming English, with all the burdens that implies. Yet, English though Sir Vidia is, he retains – as Dickens, arriving from nowhere, and Conrad, arriving late from Poland and a life at sea, always retained – the sense of strangeness, the sense of seeing things as if for the first time, the sense of otherness. I shall often return to these essays, both as guides to the art of writing, and as pocket mirrors into the soul of the man who wrote them. They do not give much away, but what they do give is worth more than many weighty autobiographies from other pens.