VS Naipaul’s notorious conceit has drained away – and the man who remains is hard to read

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A writer’s personality can colour your sense of his work – but at a literary festival in India last week, the sad problem was almost the opposite, Ian Jack reports in this article for London’s Guardian. [Note: this article is from January. We missed it then, but found it still a fascinating read 8 months later.]

Few books have meant more to me than some of those written by VS Naipaul, although the more I knew (or thought I knew) about the author, the less straightforward my admiration of his books became. One school of thought says this is foolish: a writer and his work need to be seen in separate compartments, so that the work can’t be contaminated by the author’s reputation as a wife-beating drunk, child molester or antisemite. Naipaul is none of these, but his perplexing frankness has hurt many people close to him and revealed a breathtaking, almost comic, arrogance that this reader at least finds hard to forget. In the age when writers were read and not seen or heard, we would have known much less about these characteristics. Which reader of Biggles knew the true life and habits of captain WE Johns, or even how he looked? Today, however, writers are often more visible than their books, which makes the argument for a work-life division harder to sustain. At literary festivals, we see a person rather than a printed page. It can have unexpected effects.

At last week’s festival in Jaipur, Lady Naipaul twice pushed her husband on to the stage in a wheelchair. The first time, at the close of an event that had celebrated his finest novel, A House for Mr Biswas, Naipaul said only a sentence, thanking the writers who’d praised the book for their generosity. But two or three days later he was on stage for an hour, talking to his friend Farrukh Dhondy in front of an audience that filled a large lawn. Somewhere between 1,000 and 2,000 people were sitting and standing; others walked behind or through the crowd, hoping to be detained by some excitement, and, finding none, or not enough, moved on.

He got off to a bright start. Dhondy, insisting that his interview would not be schematic, invited him and us to imagine the two men were having a conversation in Naipaul’s Wiltshire house over a glass of wine at sunset.

“I don’t like talk about sunsets. It’s a very unhappy metaphor,” Naipaul said.

“At least I didn’t say twilight,” replied Dhondy, in the cheerful spirit that he managed to maintain throughout as he tenderly coaxed memories from Naipaul and expanded his answers, so that we could pretend that a conversation, rather than a halting onstage Q&A, was taking place.

The writer rarely managed more than a sentence or two. “Is that all right? Will that do?” he asked Dhondy at one point, and then, after a long silence, “You see, I have nothing to tell people. I have no great message.” A random stand-alone detail sometimes flew out: a meal with Eric Williams, once Trinidad’s prime minister, was remembered for its fried-ness. “Fried plantain and so on … a very fried lunch.” Mainly the story was of struggle, described in the strain of elegant melancholy that often marks his writing. “I wanted to be a writer without knowing what I wanted to write about … I had a great faith in my talent … I felt if I wasn’t true to my talent that would be the end of me as a person … My life as a writer was always a process of learning … I don’t know if [what I’ve said] helps anybody.”

His wife sat behind him to adjust his microphone and occasionally whisper an answer in his ear, and when the hour was over she stood up and raised her arms above her head to applaud him, perhaps hoping that the audience would do the same thing. But the audience was uncertain. A few people stood. Most sat. We didn’t quite know how to respond to what we’d just seen. All the better-known aspects of his personality – his irritable conceit and pugnacity – had drained away to give us a benign, forgetful man in a wheelchair. It was hard to connect this figure with his work. Had it lain underneath him all along?

I saw him next day at the airport, parked some distance from the check-in while his wife argued angrily with some airline staff; a scene that might easily have been taken from one of his travel accounts. I saw him again sitting alone in business class and again an hour later beside the baggage carousel in Delhi, waiting for his cases. Each time I saw him he looked absolutely content. I wanted to bend down and thank him for the pleasure his writing had given me and the places to which it had led me, but some fear held me back. I am not sure of what. All I managed as he was wheeled past me was a stupid little salute, a few fingers to the forehead, acknowledged by a nod.

The next day in Delhi I bought a paperback of A House for Mr Biswas, to read again a favourite chapter in which Biswas gets a try-out as a reporter on the circulation-chasing Trinidad Sentinel. There he practises his favourite opening line – “Amazing scenes were witnessed when … ” – as his British editor goads him to give his readers “one good fright”. Biswas eventually succeeds “after a ship called on the way to Brazil”. DADDY COMES HOME IN A COFFIN is the headline on Biswas’s story, which recounts how, in the US, four young children of a missing Amazon explorer anxiously wait for him: “Well, I have news for you, kiddies. Daddy is on his way home. Yesterday he passed through Trinidad. In a coffin.”

The story makes Biswas notorious and his paper reviled, but the circulation increases and Biswas is hired. His time on the paper gives the book its purest comedy, and yet a mistake has been made in the telling that I have never noticed till now. A ship carrying a body from the Amazon to the US would surely be sailing from Brazil rather than to it. The book first appeared in 1961. My edition, the most recent paperback, came out in 2011. For more than 50 years, in hundreds of thousands – if not millions – of copies printed in many different languages, a ship in one of the last century’s best novels has been travelling in the wrong direction.

Diana Athill, who was for many years Naipaul’s editor, once left an obvious error in one of his books because she was so fed up with the difficulty of dealing with him. On the evidence of Jaipur, that awkward personality has vanished.

For the original report go to http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/jan/31/vs-naipaul-arrogance-used-to-be-legendary-ian-jack

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