The Lessons of the Master

Many writers—myself included—owe a great debt to V.S. (“Vidia”) Naipaul. He opened up new literary possibilities, ways of seeing and describing the world, especially the non-Western world. The hardest thing for admirers is to avoid imitating him. To sound like a writer one respects may be a sincere form of flattery, but it is also a profound misunderstanding of what makes Naipaul, or indeed any good writer, extraordinary. Finding his own voice is something of an obsession to which Naipaul returns often in his reflections on writing: the constant search for his place in the world, a unique perspective, a writerly compass.

Naipaul’s voice, which some younger writers are tempted to mimic, cannot be defined by citing his opinions on race, the colonial experience, India, literature, or anything else. His views are frequently designed to shock and outrage, thrown out, especially in interviews, as a kind of smokescreen to protect the autonomy of “the writer.” No, what makes Naipaul’s writing so inspiring is the way he makes an art out of experience, travel, careful scrutiny of the physical world, and sharp analysis of ideas, history, culture, politics.

Travel writing” of an earlier generation than Naipaul’s—Robert Byron, Evelyn Waugh, Peter Fleming—was often a form of escape, for the author and the reader; escape from dull, gray, philistine England, escape from the strictures of class, sexual mores, and the stifling charms of boarding school education. Foreigners and their peculiar ways were infuriating, to be sure, but also highly amusing.

Naipaul’s books about India, Africa, the Caribbean, Latin America, and Asia, though sometimes comical, are not of this type. Nor are they opportunities for self-display, another staple of the travel genre. Naipaul’s literary discovery of the world is marked by the way he uses his eyes and ears. Impatient with abstractions, he listens to people, not just their views, but the tone of their voices, the telling evasions, the precise choice of words. His eyes, meanwhile, register everything, the clothes, the gestures, the facial expressions, the physical details that allow him to pin people down, like butterflies in the expert hands of a lepidopterist. These observations are filtered through a mind that is alert, never sentimental, and deeply suspicious of romantic cant.

Naipaul’s voice, in fiction and non-fiction, is personal in the sense that he draws his material from his own experiences; his travels, his childhood in Trinidad, his life in England. Yet he has chosen to leave much out. His first wife, Pat Hale, who died in 1996, is never mentioned, even though she accompanied him on trips to India and elsewhere. Nor is Margaret Murray, Naipaul’s Anglo-Argentinian mistress for many years, who was frequently with him when his wife was not. There is no special reason why they should be mentioned. They were not part of the story that the writer wished to tell.

The merit of writers’ biographies continues to be disputed. For some, the work is all …

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Letters

On V.S. Naipaul: An Exchange January 15, 2009