V S Naipaul, on writing: ‘Fiction Never Lies’

Naipaul was known for his vision of writing and believed that everything else has to be subservient to this goal.

Highlights: 
He stated that: “An autobiography can distort; facts can be realigned. But fiction never lies: it reveals the writer totally.”

Considered one of the greatest English prose stylists of the second half of the 20th century, and arguably of all times, V S Naipaul was a colossus who strode the literary realm. He wove a fictional landscape and was known to spin magic out of words, and was easily in the league of legendary writers like Charles Dickens, Leo Tolstoy and Joseph Conrad. His contemporary, John Updike, reflected upon his famous novel A Bend in the River (1979) thus, “Always a master of fictional landscape, Naipaul here shows, in his variety of human examples and in his search for underlying social causes, a Tolstoyan spirit.”

Naipaul was awarded the Nobel prize in 2001, where he highlighted only his adopted country Britain, and the land of his ancestors India, but never mentioned the country of his birth, Trinidad, part of the Caribbean islands. He won the Booker prize in 1971 for In A Free State.

The genre of his writing was fiction and non-fiction, especially narrativised history that includes some historical research based on his travels.

According to Naipaul, a non-judgmental observation of the world was a hallmark of his writing. He used to carry two notebooks with him; one to record important moments, and the other to write down casual information acquired through interactions with the myriad people he encountered.

Naipaul was known for his vision of writing and believed that everything else has to be subservient to this goal. He possessed a unique style and was critical of the manner in which writers used expression and diction. Naipaul emphasised originality of expression and avoidance of banality of expression. He believed that great writers should chronicle life in different facets and that they need not interpret life around them.

He had his own recipe for a writer that centered on the enactment of ideas to make writing complex, but used simple language to convey his thoughts. He stressed the need to learn the art of ‘Distance in writing’, that is: how to take a narrative further.

Naipaul was known to use a fountain pen as the writing instrument and eventually graduated to a typewriter. The secret of his writing skills had to do with his ability to listen and observe without being judgmental.

Naipaul was known to use a fountain pen as the writing instrument and eventually graduated to a typewriter. The secret of his writing skills had to do with his ability to listen and observe without being judgmental. He wrote his first book, The Mystic Masseur, in 1957.  Another popular book of his was A House for Mr Biswas, considered to be autobiographical, in 1961.

He stated that: “An autobiography can distort; facts can be realigned. But fiction never lies: it reveals the writer totally.” Therefore, Naipaul believed in the power that fiction conveyed through writing. Over the years, Naipaul, who authored over 30 books, wished to see his name on a series of books that inspired him to emerge as a prolific writer. His contemporary fellow writers were Derek Walcott, John Updike, Argentinian writer Borges, Iris Murdoch, but he excelled them all. He came from a family of writers; his father Seepersad Naipaul and brother Shiva Naipaul were also writers.

Naipaul was born in the Caribbean islands, to where his forebears had gone from North India as indentured labourers during the colonial era to work in sugarcane plantations. His father had inspired him to become a writer. Therefore, he studied at the Oxford University and entered British literary circles but felt that he never belonged there due to discrimination that he was not an Englishman. The fact that Naipaul belonged to an erstwhile British colony made him feel that he existed only on the periphery of civilisation and endeavoured to occupy the literary centre stage.

The celebrated author had a tumultuous personal life with an active extra-marital life; besides, the author has acknowledged that he felt the need to visit brothels. His first marriage was to his Oxford classmate Patricia, who passed away due to cancer, which led him to a second marriage with a Pakistani journalist, Nadira Alvi. He never fathered children.

While the author cherished the passion of the right wing, he was critical of the left because it obliterated the possibility of high culture. Naipaul was synonymous with controversy, especially that associated with his views on women writers, who he believed were overly sentimental, which crept into their writings. He never considered any woman writer his equal for these and other reasons. His editor Diana Athill believed that Naipaul was an extraordinarily gifted writer and there was no need for him to articulate such misogynistic views.

Naipaul had strong views on India, which he believed was in a state of decay. For him, India represented an immensity for which one had a sense of tenderness and from time to time, one wanted to disassociate oneself. To that extent, the celebrated author enjoyed a love-hate relationship with India. With the demise of Naipaul ends an era of a lifetime’s commitment to writing, and it creates a void in the literary world. Writers of his stature are made but once and for all.

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V S Naipaul, on writing: ‘Fiction Never Lies’

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