“A whole generation of writers learned how to write from V S Naipaul,” says Tarun J Tejpal
It may seem like a particularly nothing month of the year — summer is on its way out but the glories of fall are nowhere yet in sight — but there is one landscape on which August glows like a firefly.
One of the greatest novelists of the 20th century — James Baldwin — was born in this month while another towering figure of the form, Toni Morrison, died in August. But not for nothing do they call it “august company”, because you cannot write of the month without acknowledging that it both gave us and took away one of the most formidable, challenging, contentious geniuses of the literary firmament, a man whose connection to India both formed and deformed him.
Sir Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul — Nobel laureate, Booker winner, Knight of the British Empire, might be among literature’s most improbable stories. Born in Trinidad on August 17, 1932, and dying just short of his 86th birthday, on August 11, 2018, Naipaul was the grandson of an indentured laborer who had traveled to Trinidad at the turn of the 19th century.
But his journey wasn’t one of geography, for Naipaul transcended the very idea of possibility itself in his trajectory from his enslaved roots to his claustrophobic life in Port of Spain to arriving at Oxford just 18 years of age, and then later, on to the freelancer’s room at the BBC, a journey that saw him become one of the world’s pre-eminent writers, a man whose grasp of the English language was so magisterial, legions of readers, editors and literary enemies — of which there was no shortage — have failed to find one excess word. “A whole generation of writers, and I must acknowledge my own debt of gratitude here, actually learned to use the English language with power, with precision, with eloquence, by reading V S Naipaul,” said writer and journalist Tarun J Tejpal when introducing the Nobel laureate at THiNK, the annual ideas festival he hosted in Goa. “At least in the post-colonial world of writers, among Indian writers for certain, I don’t think there is a single Indian writer who can say he does not owe a debt to V S Naipaul,” Tarun Tejpal said.
But it was not merely the prolific nature of Naipaul’s accomplishment, it is the acute, brutal gaze he cast on the world around him, his truthfulness as a writer of the cruel, the despicable, the violent and ugly in the very places he came from and came to, that marked him out both for antagonism and reverence.
“Before he was 30 he had already written four novels, and those four novels already included what is widely considered one of the masterpieces of 20th-century literature, A House for Mr. Biswas,” Tarun Tejpal reminded the audience at THiNK, in a session appropriately titled A Journey Without Maps.
He began, he said, because he had always believed writing to be the most noble of vocations. And you go on, he said, because if you decide to become a writer, then you don’t just write the one book. You write because it is what you need to do. “Even now, at 80, I am tormented by the need to go on,” he said in the interview with Tarun J Tejpal, five years before his death.
Perhaps the singular nature of his seeking is why the Nobel laureate, who had already written no less than 15 books by the time he was 45 and wrote a total of 30 during the course of his extraordinary lifetime — an equal number of fiction and nonfiction — has often been called a writer’s writer. All celebrated writers have a cult following of fans but rare is the exponent of the form whose cult involves so many fellow writers of stature. In large part, that is because of Naipaul’s ability to deal with subjects of immense complexity. “That is what we mean when we say he’s a writer’s writer,” Tarun Tejpal explained. “Even writers read Naipaul to understand how to convey the most complex ideas in simple prose.”
Others revered the singularity off his worldview. The iconic essayist Joan Didion once described Naipaul’s vision as “a sense of a world as a physical fact without regret or hope, a place of intense radiance in which ideas may be fevers that pass”.
The admiration was no less complete in those who he famously disagreed — even warred — with. Writer Paul Theroux, with whom Naipaul famously had a falling out before their eventual conciliation before the Nobel laureate’s death, said “He never wrote falsely. He was a scourge of anyone who used a cliché or an un-thought out sentence. He was very scrupulous about his writing, very severe, too.” Salman Rushdie echoed the sentiment when he tweeted, “disagreed all our lives, about politics, about literature but I feel as sad as if I just lost a beloved older brother. RIP Vidia.”
Perhaps the question most asked of Naipaul in his life was where, and how, did he learn the craft of writing. In his answer, seemingly opaque lies the inescapable lesson of all mastery. “I learned it by writing.”
As the bittersweet week of the giant’s birth and death comes around, there may be no greater lesson he can leave, in or outside his books.