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V.S. Naipaul's Half a LIfe

My work is full of jokes.

Naipaul. It was 6:30 on the West Coast. Mr. Naipaul answered the telephone. He asked in peevish tones who I was and why I was calling.
  • Naipaul. It was 6:30 on the West Coast. Mr. Naipaul answered the telephone. He asked in peevish tones who I was and why I was calling.

Half a Life: A Novel

Alfred A. Knopf, 2001; 211 pages; $24

FROM THE DUST JACKET: Half a Life is the story of Willie Chandran, whose father, heeding the call of Mahatma Gandhi, turned his back on his Brahmin heritage and married a woman of low caste — a disastrous union he would live to regret, as he would the children that issued from it. When Willie reaches manhood, his flight from the travails of his V S- Naipaul mixed birth takes him from India to London, where, in the shabby haunts of immigrants and literary bohemians of the 1950s, he contrives a new identity. This is what happens as he tries to defeat self-doubt in sexual adventures and in the struggle to become a writer — strivings that bring him to the brink of exhaustion, from which he is rescued, to his amazement, only by the love of a good woman. And this is what happens when he returns with her — carried along, really — to her home in Africa, to live, until the last doomed days of colonialism, yet another life not his own.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: V. S. Naipaul was born in Trinidad in 1932. He went to England on a scholarship in 1950. After four years at University College, Oxford, he began to write, and since then has followed no other profession. He has published more than 20 books of fiction and nonfiction, including A House for Mr. Biswas, A Bend in the River, and a collection of letters, Between Father and Son. He won the Booker Prize in 1971 for In a Free State and most recently was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. In their citation, the Swedish Academy notes about Naipaul that he unites “perceptive narrative and incorruptible scrutiny in works that compel us to see the presence of suppressed histories.” Mr. Naipaul was knighted in 1989 and became Sir Vidia. He lives near Stonehenge in Wiltshire, England.

A CONVERSATION WITH THE AUTHOR: On the Monday morning that Mr. Naipaul and I began our conversation, he was in a Chicago hotel room. By that morning he had been in the United States for ten days, flying from city to city to tout his new book. When I dialed his hotel, the time was 8:30 in the city that poet Carl Sandburg had called “Hog Butcher for the World,” and 6:30 on the West Coast. Mr. Naipaul answered the telephone. He asked in peevish tones who I was and why I was calling. His English-accented English, washed clean of any trace of the colony from which he came, sounded, to me, quite swank. I explained that the Knopf publicity representative had arranged for our telephone interview, that my name, my newspaper’s name, and the time I was to call all should be printed on the itinerary he had been given. Mr. Naipaul harrumphed. He said that he did not believe I was scheduled to talk with him and asked that I call back in ten minutes. He said that he would “check on me.”

I fretted for ten minutes. I thought how awful it must be for accomplished writers to rush from city to city, even when, as in the case of Mr. Naipaul, flights are first class and are met by publicity representatives who haul luggage and smooth ways and cluck agreeably. I thought how awful it must be to speak with one after another interviewer, especially when the interviewers have not read the book in question. I thought how disagreeable a task it is for an author endlessly to discuss a book that he finished 12 or 18 months earlier. I thought how boring all this chat-chat-chat is for someone like Mr. Naipaul, whose mind must be abuzz with marvelous hijinks. I thought how boring I sometimes am to myself and I pressed the redial button.

Mr. Naipaul answered. He had checked. He insisted: no record of me and our interview existed on his itinerary. As for his willingness to talk with me, he said, in his beautifully modulated voice, “I think it’s wrong. I think it’s wrong, it’s wrong. It’s not correct.”

“In what way,” I asked, “do you think it’s not correct?”

“It’s not correct for a person of my stature to appear on a giveaway sheet, you know. It’s not right. It’s not right.”

“Mmmm,” I said, “mmmmm.”

“I think you shall just waste my time. Waste...my...time.” Here in California, the sun had begun its rise. Outside my window, the new light permitted me to see the huge eucalyptus and the smaller pepper trees. I asked my first question. Willie Chandran’s father had settled upon Willie’s middle name, “Somerset,” after W. Somerset Maugham. He had done so because Maugham, in the 1930s, while traveling in India “to get material for a novel about spirituality,” had met and declared his admiration for Willie’s father. I asked Mr. Naipaul if Maugham, among educated Indians, now was considered something of an old gasbag.

“I don’t think so. It is a long time ago that he wrote, so I think all that’s in the wind, past, gone with the wind.”

“As a child, did you read Maugham?”

“Yes, I read some of his stories and I read Of Human Bondage. The thing about Maugham is that Maugham was a great educator. He educated generations of people. He’s a sentimental educator. He tells about human behavior. And he tells people not to be surprised at the things people did. His influence was extraordinary. But he is not a great writer. I think that he soon will be forgotten.”

I said that when I read in Half a Life how Willie got his middle name that I imagined Mr. Naipaul smiling to himself at the reference to Maugham.

“Always, you know, my work is full of jokes. Without this sense of comedy, life would not be tolerable. What amused me was the idea of this Willie being named after the writer, you know. It’s very strange. Yesterday, or the day before, a man came, a man from India, with his daughter, and he had named his grandson after me, and I thought what a strange thing to happen.”

Willie Somerset Chandran’s father had written to Maugham and asked him to help Willie go to school in England. I said to Mr. Naipaul, “And then, perhaps you wondered if the Indian father will write you in years to come and ask your help in sending his grandson to school?”

“Exactly. Exactly.”

Although the man after whom Willie’s named does not help him get a scholarship, another man does. Willie Chandran’s father has written to “a famous man who had paid a brief visit to the ashram just after independence.” He finds Willie a spot in a college of education in London. Willie leaves India and heads to England. He plans to study to become a teacher. Willie’s father urges him to try to get in touch with Maugham; perhaps in England the older man and his namesake, finally, will meet. So Willie writes to Maugham. And Maugham, eventually, writes back. “It was nice getting your letter. I have very nice memories of India, and it is always nice hearing from Indian friends.”

I said to Mr. Naipaul that I laughed at all those “nice’s.” “That letter,” he said, “is based on a letter Maugham wrote to me in 1961. I had won the Somerset Maugham Award for a book called Miguel Street. I don’t know how it was. I don’t know whether the award was funded by Maugham or not.” (It was) “And I don’t know whether we were asked when we got the money to write to the old man to thank him or not. I think we were asked to do that. And I did. Then there came his reply from Claridge’s Hotel in London. That’s the start of all of that in this book.”

“Maugham must have become enormously wealthy from his writing.”

“Enormously wealthy, enormously wealthy, yes, yes, yes. And his work has lived. But, as I said, soon, I think, it will be forgotten.”

Half a Life is Naipaul’s first novel in seven years and was written, he has told interviewers, at the behest of his agent. He told me that he’d had what became the Chandrans’ story in mind since 1955. “I have a little book, a really small notebook, the kind of small book that you keep in your jacket pocket, and through the years, I would make notes that could be interpreted only by me, two or three lines — perhaps four lines, five lines, six lines — I would hurriedly write down. There are, you know, moments when one is extremely receptive and open to things one is seeing and hearing, and at those moments, one makes lots of little notes. I go back and look at the notes, and something comes up. And that is what happened with this book. I have been thinking about it and taking these small notes for a very long time. I thought, really, of the father, of Willie’s father, a long time ago. And then the Willie thing came later.”

Naipaul, as a young man in London, did freelance work writing scripts for the BBC. Willie, while still at school in India, had written little stories. In London, through a man he meets at a party, Willie is offered freelance assignments to write scripts for the BBC. He also begins to write stories. He finds that he can go to the movies and crib plot lines from Cagney and Bogart films.

High Sierra,” Naipaul writes in Half a Life, “gave him three stories, and he saw three or four more in it. He changed the movie character from story to story, so that the original Cagney or Bogart character became two or three different people.” I said to Mr. Naipaul that Willie’s movie-going and his lifting of story lines from movies made me laugh and also made me feel sad.

“Ah, yes,” he said. “You liked that? I know a very serious writer who does that, you know. It’s what he does.”

“How do you think he will feel when he reads Half a Life?” “He will not see it. People don’t see these things about themselves.”

Willie rather quickly gives up on his writing. About this, Mr. Naipaul said, “I think that’s a good thing in the book, actually, that Willie quits his writing. Nothing comes of that writing; it’s just there, slightly fraudulent. Just as the writing begins to get profound, he stops.”

“Does he stop because he doesn’t have the spiritual means to go on?”

“Yes, yes, the spiritual means. He wouldn’t know how to write about himself and his background. He doesn’t have the distance on himself. He lacks the gift of self-assessment. He doesn’t have the education at that stage in his life. At school, too, he doesn’t learn much. What he has is this business of education that doesn’t teach at all. And I think that’s Willie’s trouble. He goes right through like that.”

Willie, I said, learns more from the friends he makes in England than he does in school. For instance, from his courting of loose women.

“I would not say that Willie courts,” said Mr. Naipaul, “I would say that he fumbles. He doesn’t even himself believe that he’s courting. He knows that he’s being extremely foolish. Yes, he knows that he’s foolish. He knows that he’s making himself ridiculous. I think he knows that. But again he has no alternative. Like his father, there’s no talent there for seduction, and he doesn’t know what to do.”

“Willie,” I said, “I feel is not interested in other people.” “That’s been said, you know. That’s been said. That was said by people at the publisher’s in London. That’s been said. And I wasn’t aware of that. But if it is true, if it’s true, it would be quite remarkable. Because the whole point of a person like Willie is that he doesn’t see very clearly. He can’t see; he’s looking inward all the time. That was always the point about Willie’s father too. That wasn’t intended by me. But you know writers don’t always know what they’re doing.”

The little stories Willie’s written, the stories whose plots he’s pilfered from movies, are collected and published. A woman writes to him about the stories. They meet. Her name is Ana. Half Portuguese, half African, Ana comes from an African colony reminiscent of Mozambique. They kiss for the first time. Ana tells Willie that he needs to get his teeth fixed. “You should look after your teeth,” she says. “They are spoiling your looks.”

Willie visits a dentist who goes at the tartar on Willie’s teeth “with relish.” I said to Mr. Naipaul that I thought the business with his teeth and his visit to the dentist was quite wonderful.

“I’m glad you liked that. Yes, it’s a bit of tenderness between Ana and Willie for the first time. Nobody has ever taken that interest in him as Ana does. And so it’s a way of dealing with that side of life.”

Ana and Willie marry. They move to Africa and live on Ana’s outback estate. After several years Willie begins to visit African prostitutes. And then he meets a married woman with whom he initiates an affair. “Sexual pictures,” Mr. Naipaul writes, “of her played in my head when I was not with her. With her guidance, since she was the more experienced, our love-making had taken forms that had astonished, worried, and then delighted me.”

I said that I felt that Willie’s sensual awakening taking place in a country like this was so perfect because this awakening was the great danger for him, just as this unnamed Mozambique-like country had become a dangerous place for its non-African residents.

Mr. Naipaul cautioned that the African country was not Mozambique. “I wish it to be something mysterious. You know Mozambique has its own politics and its own politicians, and I don’t want people to be looking there for similarities and things like that.”

The affair ends. Willie’s relationship with his wife becomes increasingly tenuous. He never is able to return to the simple lovemaking in which he and his wife engaged.

About the possibility of that return, Mr. Naipaul said, “Yes, I think that it would be impossible, really. I think it would be impossible. How could he?”

Willie tells Ana that after 18 years of life together, he must leave her. Their marriage must end. “I think it’s all very delicately done,” said Mr. Naipaul. “I think it’s all very true. I think it will touch many people in many points. And I think the decision to leave his wife was very good. People speak about immorality but I think the higher morality was with him.”

Mr. Naipaul talked more about Willie’s leaving Ana. Willie showed courage, Mr. Naipaul said, by leaving. This “half a life” of the title was intended as “quite literal. All of us live only half a life. Most people live in not happy marriages. Most people are dreadfully unhappy. Are miserable. So Willie has great courage when he leaves. He could have stayed. But he leaves. He travels back to Europe.”

I asked if Mr. Naipaul would do any more travel books. I said, “I would think that you might be tired of traveling for writing.” “Not tired. I’m not tired of that. I think I’m not able to gamble with it any longer. It’s a gamble. And I don’t think I can risk it anymore. By that I mean, things can so easily go wrong and one can fail in mid-career with that kind of book. I don’t wish to do it again.”

Naipaul, on one October after another, witnessed the Nobel’s crown placed on other heads, including that of another Trinidadian, the poet Derek Walcott, who won the prize in 1992 (and who has accused Naipaul of racism). Paul Theroux writing in Sir Vidia’s Shadow (1998), the memoir about his friendship with Naipaul and that friendship’s end, noted that each year when the Swedish Academy announced its choice for the literature prize, Naipaul was annoyed. Theroux quotes Naipaul as saying at those times, “The Nobel committee are doing it again, as they do every year. Pissing on literature. Pissing from a great height.”

I had read that Mr. Naipaul was brushing his teeth when he got the word from the Swedish Academy. Was what I read accurate?

“Ah, yes. Yes, yes, yes. Very late in the morning someone from the Academy called me. 1 don’t quite know who. I was quite surprised, you know. I haven’t even read the citation yet. You know, I have to read it sometime. A bit of it was read to me on a radio program two days ago, and it sounded quite profound, actually. Very profound. Very. It went on for a page and something.”

“1 think the Nobel citation perhaps was something that Willie’s father would have liked.”

Mr. Naipaul laughed. “I wonder. I wonder. I wonder. Mmm.”

Did Mr. Naipaul believe that he would be able to put up with all the hullabaloo — the speechifying, the toasts and the dinners — that the Nobel will bring him?

“It will be okay for me. There will be no problem for me. I’m quite old now. I’m 69. I’m very wise in the ways of the world. And I’m able to withdraw. I’m able to withdraw. I’m able to go inside myself. The lecture which I’m going to read in Stockholm, in that lecture I quote Proust about the writer. The writer doesn’t write with the social side of himself. We don’t, you know. Even when we are in company, there is another self deep inside, secret and hidden away, and it is that self that comes out in our books. And that inner person is always there waiting. One can always go back. One can always go back.”

“When you start a book, do you know how it will end?”

“Not always. Not always. Not always. One writes, and then things clear up.”

The Nobel Prize in Literature 2001 V.S. Naipaul

The Nobel Prize in Literature for 2001 is awarded to the British writer, bom in Trinidad, V.S. Naipaul “for having united perceptive narrative and incorruptible scrutiny in works that compel us to sec the presence of suppressed histories.”

V.S. Naipaul is a literary circumnavigator, only ever really at home in himself, in his inimitable voice. Singularly unaffected by literary fashion and models, he has wrought existing genres into a style of his own, in which the customary distinctions between fiction and non-fiction are of subordinate importance.

Naipaul’s literary domain has extended far beyond the West Indian island of Trinidad, his first subject, and now encompasses India, Africa, America from south to north, the Islamic countries of Asia and, not least, England. Naipaul is Conrad’s heir as the annalist of the destinies of empires in the moral sense: what they do to human beings. His authority as a narrator is grounded in his memory of what others have forgotten, the history of the vanquished.

The farcical yarns in his first work, The Mystic Masseur, and the short stories in Miguel Street with their blend of Chekhov and calypso, established Naipaul as a humorist and a portrayer of street life. He took a giant stride with A House for Mr. Biswas, one of those singular novels that seem to constitute their own complete universes, in this case a miniature India on the periphery of the British Empire, the scene of his father’s circumscribed existence. In allowing peripheral figures their place in the momen-tousness of great literature, Naipaul reverses normal perspectives and denies readers at the centre their protective detachment. This principle was made to serve in a series of novels in which, despite the increasingly documentary tone, the characters did not therefore become less colourful. Fictional narratives, autobiography, and documentaries have merged in Naipaul’s writing without it always being possible to say which clement dominates.

In his masterpiece The Enigma of Arrival Naipaul visits the reality of England like an anthropologist studying some hitherto unexplored native tribe deep in the jungle. With apparently shortsighted and random observations he creates an unrelenting image of the placid collapse of the old colonial ruling culture and the demise of European neighbourhoods.

Naipaul has drawn attention to the novel’s lack of universality as a form, that it presupposes an inviolate human world of the kind that has been shattered for conquered peoples. He began to experience the inadequacy of fiction while he was working on The Loss of El Dorado, in which after extensive study of the archives he described the appalling colonial history of Trinidad. He found that he had to cling to the authenticity of the details and the voices and abstain from mere fictionalisation while at the same time continuing to render his material in the form of literature. His travel books allow witnesses to testify at every turn, not least in his powerful description of the eastern regions of the Islamic world. Beyond Belief. The author’s empathy finds expression in the acuity of his ear.

Naipaul is a modem philosophe, carrying on the tradition that started originally with Lettres persanes and Candide. In a vigilant style, which has been deservedly admired, he transforms rage into precision and allows events to speak with their own inherent irony.

—The Swedish Academy

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