As a writer who has so persistently excavated his own past, inserting his personal narrative into a sustained analysis of the postcolonial condition, V. S. Naipaul makes an attractive subject for an interviewer. At the same time interviewing Naipaul can be a daunting experience. Scott Winokur warns that it is essential to "be punctual, familiar with all 21 of his titles and original in (one's) questioning... Naipaul may find a way to make life briefly miserable for the interviewer." On his way to speak to Naipaul, James Atlas, the American journalist,remembers David Hare's portrait of Victor Mehta, a character based on Naipaul, in Hare's play, A Map of the World: Mehta had written a novel about journalists entitled The Vermin Class. This mood of anxiety is summed up by Stephen Schiff who recalls Saul Bellow's first, lapidary impression of Naipaul: "After one look from him, I could skip Yom Kippur."
In one of the interviews included in this collection, Schiff speaks of Naipaul's writing coming to the reader "in repeating waves, depositing bits of information, and then receding, only to surge forward again, a little farther this time, depositing a little more." Schiff stresses the centrality of history to Naipaul's vision of the world and his place in it, a vision so integrated as to risk becoming solipsistic. One is reminded of the speculation of one of the Trinidadian characters in his early book, the comic Miguel Street: "Look, boys, it ever strike you that the world not real at all? It ever strike you that we have the only mind in the world and you just thinking up everything else?" In the same novel, the would-be poet B. Wordsworth seems to sum up all Naipaul's preoccupations when he utters his monthly "good line" - "The past is deep."
Naipaul shows nothing but contempt for what he would regard as abbreviating ideologies that seek to abolish the past and impose simple solutions upon perennial problems. This brings him into conflict with the various third world theorists who can only discern in his work "the systems of ideas and representation of the dominant culture" (Selwyn Cudjoe). In his 1990 interview with Naipaul, Andrew Robinson makes the link with that other major literary commentator on India, Nirad C. Chaudhuri. Although Naipaul has moved away from the bleak pessimism of his two earlier books on India he continues to share Chaudhuri's faith in the superiority of western humanistic values, seeing everywhere the threat offered by modern ignorance and sloth. Both authors relish their high Tory personae while signalling the irony of their role as former colonial subjects. Hostile commentators observe the political incorrectness while failing to notice the irony. But the famous Naipaulian gloom, so noticeable in the earlier interviews, is neither wholly misanthropic nor entirely assumed to startle and offend; rather it is one of his many manoeuvres that aim to move the postcolonial discussion on from ritualised rage and guilt.
"More than any other writer I know, he has invented himself, pieced together a coherent identity out of a multifarious past," writes Atlas. Naipaul is, in so many of these interviews, disarmingly frank about his initial motivations. To Bernard Levin he admits, "It was just something that was given to me as a fantasy of nobility, a fantasy of the good life, the beautiful life, the civilised life." He claims to have had nothing to say and to have been driven by the simple vision of authorship as an escape from the confining circumstances of his origins, as the grandson of an Indian indentured labourer in rural Trinidad. But, as so often with Naipaul, a commonplace becomes transformed into something of haunting seriousness. His current preoccupation with the narrator and the act of narration as the centrepiece of the story (most notably in The Enigma of Arrival) might be seen as an artistic resolution of this early infatuation with the idea of authorship. In a 1994 interview with Aamer Hussein, he regrets his "suppression of the narrator" in his 1963 novel set in London, Mr Stone and the Knights Companion. The real story was encoded in the fact that the doings of a lower middle-class English couple were not being told by an omniscient third person, but by a recently arrived "Asiatic" from Trinidad.
Naipaul's relationship with Trinidad, where he lived for the first 18 years of his life, is not easily described. As if to underline the ephemerality of the interview genre, Edward Rouse in his 1968 conversation with Naipaul inaccurately predicts: "it is hardly likely that he will write anything more about the West Indies or West Indian situations." Throughout these interviews he speaks of Trinidad as a place of nullity, voicing his revulsion for almost every aspect of the island. ("I just felt I was in the wrong place," he tells Levin.) At the same time it is the setting of his first four novels, including his most widely admired, A House for Mr Biswas. It remains a troubling presence in many of the other writings, including the brilliant nonfictional account of Trinidad, The Loss of Eldorado (Naipaul revisits this material in his 1994 sequence A Way in the World.) He succeeds in depicting the life of the island in a remarkably uncondescending and "compassionate" way, though one must add, as Naipaul tells Robinson, compassion is a word that he "take(s) care not to use". His vocation as a writer may have been prompted by a desire to escape from Trinidad but it was also inspired by his journalist father's aspirations to authorship. In constantly revisiting and re-valuating this island past, the reader begins to share Naipaul's own tormented ambivalence. As he confides to the Nobel laureate Derek Walcott in 1965, "I do not think one can ever abandon one's allegiance to one's community, or at any rate to the idea of one's community."
In these "conversations" we relive much of the autobiographical component of the novels and nonfictional narratives. For example, in recalling to Charles Michener his nervous breakdown in Oxford in the early 1950s, Naipaul speaks of losing himself in "my studies of the derivations of words, the design of the lettering". For many readers this incident will recall the strange obsession with sign writing that we encounter in The Mystic Masseur or A House for Mr Biswas. It also provides us with a premonition of Naipaul's own working methods. He speaks to Walcott of "Writing a word like 'ruins' on a copybook page and looking at it for a day."
Feroza Jussawalla is to be congratulated on editing such a varied selection of 23 conversations (though she modestly computes 22 in her introduction). They are compulsively readable, full of the idiosyncratic inventiveness and caprice of their subject, described here by Ahmed Rashid as "The Last Lion". With the award, in 1993, of the first David Cohen British literature prize, it might be said that the enigmatic Naipaul had definitely arrived. As he puts it in an interview with Alastair Niven, "When one is really stressed one makes a lot of jokes... The profounder comedy comes from greater security."
Ronald Warwick teaches postcolonial literature at Brunel University College.
Conversations with V. S. Naipaul
Editor - Feroza Jussawalla
ISBN - 0 87805 945 8
Publisher - University Press of Mississippi
Price - £17.00
Pages - 174